GAINESVILLE — Don’t let the final score of Florida’s 42-0 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday fool you.
The No. 20 Gators (4-2, 2-2 SEC) got their lopsided conference victory on homecoming because they were playing the worst Power Five team in the country and not one loaded with talent, like LSU or Georgia, the next two opponents that will define UF’s season.
Coach Dan Mullen summed up the Gators’ early performance against Vanderbilt in a terse halftime interview on the SEC Network.
His message to his quarterbacks? “Play better.”
His assessment of the defense? “Awful.”
That was all he said. And that was all he needed to say.
The quarterbacks started shaky. Emory Jones missed open Rick Wells in the first quarter for what would have been an easy score. Anthony Richardson’s first throw was an interception.
The defense was as awful as it could look in a shutout. It missed too many tackles, including three on the same rush in the second quarter. Missed tackles have become a recurring theme for a unit that is better than it was last year but still vulnerable.
The Gators were fortunate to lead 21-0 at halftime. Vanderbilt had a 39-yard field goal doink off the left upright, missed a 41-yarder wide left and had a fourth-down touchdown catch overturned on replay review.
Remember last weekend when Mullen pointed to UF’s major edge in yardage as evidence that the offense wasn’t sputtering and that he wasn’t outcoached in a loss at Kentucky? Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-2) trailed only 215-200 in yardage through two quarters.
“Couldn’t get off the field,” Mullen said.
The Gators brought their penchant for penalties with them from the Kentucky game. The defense committed back-to-back personal fouls in the first quarter. The offense had first downs wiped away because of an illegal formation call and a holding call.
The penalty gap over the last two weeks: 23-7.
“Maybe they’re doing something a little different than what we’re doing,” Mullen said.
The plus side for Mullen is that the Gators started doing different things in the second half. They played better.
Jones made the right reads, resulting in downfield passes to Dameon Pierce (a 61-yard touchdown) and Jacob Copeland (a 47-yarder to set up a score).
The defense was less awful. Trey Dean had an interception. The Commodores got into UF territory only twice in the second half and in the red zone only once.
“We went out in the second half and just played to our brand of ball,” defensive back Rashad Torrence said.
But even in a blowout, UF left Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with reasons for concern. In the fourth quarter, Xzavier Henderson muffed a punt but recovered it, another return mistake on a unit that hasn’t been dynamic.
Jones and Richardson threw interceptions, though they don’t deserve all the blame. Jones’ interception was tipped, and Richardson was hit as he threw. But that, too, is a problem. UF’s offensive line shouldn’t be having issues against a Vanderbilt defense that entered Saturday tied for second to last nationally in sacks (three).
That issue could be at least partially attributed to another concern: injuries. UF’s already thin offensive line was without left tackle Richard Gouraige and saw center Kingsley Eguakun hobble off the field early in the third quarter.
All-SEC cornerback Kaiir Elam was sidelined for the third consecutive game. Running back Malik Davis was also in street clothes, and defensive end Brenton Cox sat out the second half.
Their long-term statuses weren’t clear, but UF needs them back soon, because its season still has promise. Though the primary goal, winning the SEC East, all but disappeared last week in Kentucky, UF can still salvage success, depending on what happens over the next two weeks.
Death Valley is always daunting, but LSU is flawed and coach Ed Orgeron is on one of the hottest seats in the country. UF hung with Alabama last month, so it’s not outlandish to think Mullen can use an open date to scheme his way into a competitive game against Georgia in Jacksonville.
If UF can find a way to win both those games, the Gators will be in position for a fourth consecutive New Year’s Six bowl game. They also have a fighting chance to beat all four of their main rivals — Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State — in the same year for the first time since 2009.
But only if they heed Mullen’s halftime advice beyond Saturday.
They need to play better.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
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