Friday, December 15, 2017
Colleges

Lost: Florida Gators' passing game

NEW ORLEANS

The pass, if you can reasonably classify it that, was terrible from the outset. Along the way, it got worse.

For Florida, this was precisely when a lost night began to go bad. Quarterback Jeff Driskel's first throw was wide left, and receiver Andre Debose struggled to get a hand on it, which was the worst thing imaginable because he tipped the ball upward, and it was intercepted, and it was returned for a touchdown, and 15 seconds into the game the Gators were playing chase.

And that, as much as anything, sums up how badly the University of Florida misses the forward pass.

You remember that thing called "the pass," don't you? That was the play the Gators used to conquer the world back in the coaching days of Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. It was fun-and-gun, and chunk-and-chase, and keep-up-if-you-can. It left opponents looking slow and confused, and it made fans feel that the end zone was never far away.

These days?

Not so much.

In some ways it felt as if the Gators spent most of Wednesday night's 33-23 Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville being driven crazy by an old friend. Yeah, powerhouse running games are good, and sturdy defenses are admirable. On the other hand, this is Florida. Shouldn't the Gators be able to throw the ball better than this?

Yes, Driskel, a sophomore, had a wonderful season in his first year as a starter. He ran well, and he managed the offense, and the Gators won 11 times in his 12 starts before this game.

That said, he doesn't exactly remind anyone of Danny Wuerffel when he drops back to throw, does he?

Or, for that matter, Steve Spurrier.

Or, let's see, Tim Tebow or Rex Grossman or Chris Leak or Kerwin Bell or Shane Matthews or John Reaves or any of another half-dozen or so former Gator quarterbacks.

Look, you can blame Driskel, or his age, or his receivers. You can blame the offense, or the coaching, or the game plan. But watching a Florida quarterback struggle to throw is like watching an Alabama tailback struggle to run. This is the Quarterback Factory, after all. There are three statues outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and they're all of quarterbacks. Spurrier. Wuerffel. Tebow.

Just wondering, but where did it all go?

At Florida these days, the pass is like an old toy the Gators don't play with anymore. Oh, they dabble. They dink every now and then. But they don't air it out. They are no longer dangerous. Not like the old days.

More than anything else, Wednesday night's disappointment emphasized just how much work the Gators have to do to become even an average passing team. Leading up to the game, coach Will Muschamp talked about how the Gators have to get better around Driskel, about how they need a vertical passing game to avoid becoming one-dimensional.

Frankly, Wednesday would have been a nice time to start.

Instead, it was Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater who was the dangerous quarterback. When it was Florida's turn to throw, you could imagine fans cringing at the thought.

Consider this: Against Louisville, the Gators were behind by two touchdowns or more for most of the game, which meant they had to throw more often than they usually do. And they still wound up with only 172 yards passing.

None of this was new. This year the Gators passed for only 1,727 yards, which left them 119th out of 124 Division I-A teams. Their 12 touchdown passes were 108th. Too many whiffs. Too many wobbles.

When a team goes 11-1 in the regular season, of course, no one grumbles very loudly. But remember this as the year Florida went from pass-happy to just plain happy. Wednesday night it was neither.

In a way, it is surprising the Gators managed as fine a season as they did with so few yards through the air. Driskel threw only 216 times for 1,471 yards. Leak and Matthews had seasons when they threw more than twice as many times, and Florida has had 10 seasons in which quarterbacks had more than double the yards.

As for Driskel, offensive coordinator Brent Pease talks about the strength of his arm. He talks about how athletic Driskel is. Perhaps Driskel still has a chance.

By next season you would hope Driskel would have made significant progress. He may never throw as many times as Wuerffel or Grossman, and he may never have as many moments as Spurrier or Tebow. But he has to be able to make a big throw in a big game.

Every now and then, someone should remind his fans about the forward pass. Someday, perhaps, it will come home.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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