After Florida quarterback Emory Jones threw his second interception Saturday at LSU, Gators coach Dan Mullen made the move fans had been expecting for weeks. He benched Jones in favor of dazzling redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson.
But it didn’t matter who was lining up behind center Saturday. Not even Tim Tebow could have rescued the No. 20 Gators from the awful defense that was gashed in UF’s 49-42 loss at Tiger Stadium.
The lowlights were everywhere. LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price broke Leonard Fournette’s single-game Tigers record with 287 rushing yards. The 321 rushing yards UF (4-3, 2-3 SEC) allowed were the most in a regular-season game since Georgia Southern ran for 429 in the rock-bottom loss in 2013.
Mullen, like his defense, had no answers. He didn’t point fingers at scheme, coaching, personnel, tackling or anything else. He just said, repeatedly, that UF would evaluate things during their open date before a showdown with No. 1 Georgia in Jacksonville at the end of the month.
“We’ve got to get better,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to get better up front. We’ll look at the scheme part. We’ve got to look at the personnel. Get better.”
Mullen did have an answer to one thing: He ruled out making major in-season changes —ie firing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Mullen said nothing changed his perspective on Grantham.
“I don’t like to jump to conclusions…” Mullen said. “I like to know the facts on everything that’s going on and what the issues are and what we’re doing and what we need to do to improve and how we’re going to do that.”
He better find the answer quickly, because the fan base’s patience is waning. UF’s already slim hopes of making a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game and winning the SEC East are all but eliminated. For a second consecutive year, UF will have at least three losses.
Mullen isn’t under scorching heat the same way LSU coach Ed Orgeron was entering this weekend, but the pressure cranked up with a third consecutive loss to the Tigers —and the second notable upset. This one can’t even be blamed on a thrown shoe.
The problems began in the first half with one of the worst two-minute stretches of Mullen’s tenure.
Jones threw a pass slightly behind receiver Trent Whittemore that was deflected to LSU linebacker Micah Baskerville for an interception. The Tigers scored on the next play.
Mullen turned to Richardson who responded with his own immediate interception. That, too, set up a Johnson-to-Jenkins touchdown. UF went from down one to down 21-6 in a span of seven plays.
Jones threw a Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the half but was intercepted, again, early in the third quarter. The game went back to Richardson.
In the next three drives, Richardson completed 8 of his 9 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. He also ripped off a 25-yard rush and ran for a touchdown and two-point conversion. His third-quarter scoring pass to Dameon Pierce tied the game late in the third quarter.
Jones still made an important contribution in the second half. When Richardson left with a hand injury, Jones reentered. His first play? A third-down conversion to Shorter that kept the drive alive. Richardson came back in and finished it off with a beautiful 33-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Copeland that tied the game at 42 with 9:14 left.
Unfortunately for UF, Richardson does not play defense. LSU kept gashing the Gators on the ground, and Johnson hit Jenkins for a 1-yard touchdown pass on fourth down that took the lead for good. UF’s final gasp ended when Richardson threw his second interception on an ill-advised pass under pressure.
Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said the Tigers’ backs always seemed to gain a few yards before UF’s defense could even hit them. That sounds as if the problems were more on the coaches than the players. Diabate, notably, also said it isn’t his job to question his assignment. His job is to execute it.
Whether it was scheme, execution or both, Mullen has plenty to evaluate in the long off week before the Georgia game. He better find an answer immediately; the Bulldogs have one of the most talented backfields in the country.
Mullen’s tone changed Saturday when asked about whether Jones or Richardson will start going forward. In the past, Mullen has said Jones was clearly the starter.
This time, Mullen said “we’ll evaluate that, of how that’s going to play out moving forward.”
Mullen continues not to gush over Richardson’s performances, even after a four-touchdown (three passing, one rushing) day.
“He’s a young quarterback that’s learning and developing,” Mullen said. “That’s a good label for him.”
• • •