GAINESVILLE —If Florida’s run game was ever going to fix itself, Saturday should have been the day.
It didn’t happen.
Even against a Vanderbilt defense that entered Ben Hill Griffin Stadium allowing more than 200 rushing yards per game, No. 10 Florida struggled on the ground, just as it has all season.
It didn’t matter, because this prolific group of receivers bailed the Gators out, just as it has all season. Saturday’s 56-0 destruction of Vanderbilt was just the latest masterpiece for a talented, selfless receiving corps that has Florida (8-2, 4-2 SEC) as one of the front-runners for a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game.
Give quarterback Kyle Trask credit for his career-high 363 passing yards. That’s the most by a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow torched Cincinnati for a school-record 482 in his Sugar Bowl farewell and the 20th best single-game performance in program history. But give just as much, if not more, to the skill players catching his throws.
Trask spread his 25 completions among 10 different players. Add in Emory Jones’ change-of-pace and garbage-time throws, and 11 Gators caught at least one pass. None caught more than four.
“We have a lot of different guys touch the ball,” coach Dan Mullen said, “and there's a benefit to that.”
The benefit: Instead of zeroing in on one receiver, Trask can scan the field looking for any open receiver. There almost always seems to be at least one, and the Gators don’t care who it is.
“Nobody really is stingy when it comes to getting the ball,” said Trevon Grimes, Florida’s top receiver Saturday (four catches, 95 yards and a touchdown).
That’s a stunning admission for a position known for look-at-me divas. But it’s true. Look at the way tight end Kyle Pitts blocked for Grimes on his 66-yard breakaway score. Watch how they congratulate each other after each touchdown.
“It feels great,” receiver Tyrie Cleveland said. “Like I scored.”
The biggest example Mullen can cite is the camaraderie between Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain. The two seniors play the same receiver spot. Neither cares who starts.
“I don’t know how many teams have two wide receivers that are captains that play the same position and split time and it’s not a complete meltdown,” Mullen said.
No meltdowns with this unit. Only touchdowns. Trask’s three passing scores went to three different players (Grimes, Pitts and running back Lamical Perine).
They had to score that way because of how stagnant the Gators’ ground game and run blocking remain, even against lowly Vanderbilt (2-7, 1-5).
The final stat line — 29 carries for 150 yards —looks better than it was. Florida’s three primary running backs finished with only 23 yards. Perine had zero rushing yards at halftime. All four rushing touchdowns were by quarterbacks (three by Jones, one by Trask), and two occurred with the game already out of hand.
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If a shaky run game has kept the Gators away from being a College Football Playoff contender, this stable of receivers has them headed for a second consecutive season with double-digit wins.
Florida already has three different receivers (Pitts, Swain and Van Jefferson) with at least 25 catches, 350 yards and four touchdowns — something it hasn’t done since the 2008 national title team. Grimes is only one score away from becoming the fourth on the team with those numbers.
Grimes’ performance Saturday gave Florida seven 90-yard games in a season for the first time since 2007. Even more impressive, those seven games have been split among five different players.
All of that came together against the Commodores with two quarterbacks who started the year on the bench combining for Florida’s most passing yards (410) in almost a decade.
“That should be like that every week in my opinion,” Cleveland said.
With a receiving corps this deep and talented, he might be right.
Takeaways from the game
• I’m fascinated by what Florida’s quarterback room will look like next year because I have no idea if Kyle Trask, Emory Jones and Feleipe Franks will all return. Jones showed some potential with three second-half rushing touchdowns, including a nifty 13-yarder. Maybe that’s a good sign for the future.
• After recording only four career interceptions entering Saturday, safety Donovan Stiner’s two-pick day was impressive enough on its own. It was even bigger considering the state of UF’s thin secondary, which saw safety Brad Stewart leave with an apparent leg injury.
• Vanderbilt is awful, which leads to this question: If we fused together the rosters of the Commodores and Volunteers, could we somehow create a halfway decent SEC team?