On a night when the Florida Gators honored the architect of the Fun N Gun, they squeezed out a Snore N Bore 24-7 victory over a determined UMass Minutemen football team in the season opener for both teams.
Steve Spurrier, the former Florida Heisman winner and national championship coach, was honored at halftime as his name was officially attached to the stadium he nicknamed the Swamp.
Prior to that, however, he was honored as the season’s first Mr. Two Bits leading the crowd in the cheer made famous by retired insurance salesman George Edmonson. Mimicking track star Usain Bolts signature move Spurrier seemed to relish his role as Mr. Two Bits and the crowd roared their approval.
For three quarters, however, there wasn’t much to cheer. In fact, it was eerily similar to previous seasons as the Gators clung to a 10-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
For fans it was certainly a ho-hum affair as penalties and unforced errors repeatedly stalled Gator drives and extended UMass drives. On the night, the Gators had eight penalties for 80 yards, most coming at inopportune times.
In fact, the lone Minutemen scoring drive was aided by three Gator penalties for 35 yards on a drive that should have ended quickly with a three and out if not for a roughing the passer call on linebacker Jarrad Davis on a failed third down play.
“Not happy with the penalties especially the three personal fouls,” head coach Jim McElwain said in the postgame press conference. “That’s not how you play winning football.”
“The thing that bothers you probably more than anything is they were unforced,” he added. “Three majors (penalties), that’s just unacceptable.”
On this night the defense was an enigma. They held the Minutemen to 187 total yards and one touchdown but, beside the unforced penalties, they gave up a few big plays on third and fourth down that a good SEC defense shouldn’t against the 122nd rated FBS team.
On the touchdown drive alone, the Gators gave up a 4th and 14 and had problems wrapping up the Minutemen quarterback Ross Comis letting him slip away or juke players in position to stop him.
” I thought our defense played… Just ok,” McElwain said. “We can definitely play better, and we will.”
“We just got to play smarter. We can’t put ourselves in a hole.”
While the front seven was a bright spot for the Gators, repeatedly harassing the quarterback and running back, they whiffed too many times on tackles for loss and the defensive backfield really showed the depth issues coach Mac talked about in the preseason.
With All American corner Jalen “Teez” Tabor sitting out due to a suspension and his replacement Duke Dawson sidelined early due to an arm injury, the Gators were exposed with sophomore Chris Williamson, freshman Chauncey Gardner, and JUCO transfer Joseph Putu filling in.
Overall, I’d give the Gators defense a B- mainly due to the personal foul penalties and missed tackles and some backend depth issues that will need to be corrected moving forward.
Individual superlatives go to Jabari Zuniga who came in with energy and stayed in the backfield, linebacker Alex Anzalone who had a monster game despite a couple missed tackles, linebacker Jarrad Davis, who also had a monster game but a couple terrible penalties, and safety Marcus Maye.
The two linebackers were constantly in the backfield, around the ball, and seemed unblockable at times.
“Alex [Anzalone] and Jarrad [Davis] it’s hard for me to think there’s a better two in the country,” McElwain said.
Marcus Maye was another ball hawk who was continually in the backfield on blitzes and in run support.
On offense, sophomore Luke Del Rio took the reins of the Florida offense, the first start of his college career, and had mixed results.
On his first two series Del Rio went 8-11 for 98 yards and a touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway. He also had two runs for 9 yards on the scoring drive.
On the Gators opening possession, he led them into UMass territory picking up a couple of first downs before poor blocking on third down ended the drive before they could put any points on the board.
After the first two drives, however, his play became more erratic, missing open receivers and dancing around with ill-timed scrambles.
He finished the game a respectable 29-44 for 256 yards (5.8 ypc) with 2 TD’s and no interceptions.
While his performance wasn’t flashy, he didn’t turn the ball over and in this offense that’s perhaps most important.
“I thought Luke did some pretty darn good things,” McElwain said. “Took care of the football. He put it where it was supposed to be.”
“I think if there’s some real positives out of it… the turnover piece was something that I thought was really good as far as taking care of the football,” he said. “And you know what, that’s how you become successful as a team.”
And they were successful on Saturday night in the Swamp even if it was painstaking for fans to watch at times through the middle segments of the game.
One group that struggled on the night was the offensive line who never seemed to be able to get much of a push and often had breakdowns in pass protection.
On the first series after picking up a couple of quick first downs, a breakdown between left guard Martez Ivey and running back Jordan Cronkrite left a defensive tackle in Del Rio’s face forcing him to throw it away ending the first series in UMass territory.
That sort of sloppy line play would continue throughout with miscommunication and a lack of energy and sense of urgency.
“I’ll tell you what bothers me [about the offensive line] is the way they just mope around and walk around out there instead of hustling to the line of scrimmage and getting ready to go,” McElwain said.
“Their energy has to be a lot better. Those tackles have to get up and get set so we can execute and get more plays than what we did in this game.”
The line wasn’t the only issue offensively however.
There were several drops in the passing game and few explosive plays.
“We didn’t have any [explosive plays],” McElwain lamented. “We’ve got to get ‘em.”
“We dropped a couple. We had the first one pretty much wide open. That’s something we’ve get to get a little bit better at, obviously.”
That first one was the first play from scrimmage where Del Rio missed a wide open Antonio Callaway overthrowing him when he had two steps on the defensive back.
Gators have certainly got to find a way to hit those plays. You don’t get them very often.
One of the lone bright spots on offense was running back Jordan Scarlett who ran 13 times for 70 yards on a night where there were few holes and little push by the offensive line.
He’s one of the few that continually played with effort and energy repeatedly fighting for extra yardage making it difficult on the Minutemen defense to bring him down.
The other two offensive superlatives go to receivers Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell who scored both of the Gator touchdowns.
Callaway (8 catches, 72 yards, td) and Powell (7 catches, 73 yards, td) both made clutch catches and fought hard to break tackles and carry the offense.
Powell’s td was especially nice after catching a screen, shaking the defenders attempted tackle, and then turning on the jets and racing down the sidelines to the endzone.
Overall, though, I’d give the offense a C grade with the line struggles, untimely penalties, and lack of big plays.
There’s a lot for them to correct this week as they head into their SEC opener against Kentucky.
On special teams, the star of the show was kicker Eddie Piniero, the social media sensation who came in and solidified a horrid placekicking situation kicking three field goals (3-3 long 49) and making his lone extra point. He also repeatedly booted his kickoffs into the end zone with only two returns for a 13.5 yard average.
Punter Johnny Townsend was his usual dependable self with 4 punts for 144 yards a 44.5 yard average.
Special teams gets an A grade. They did what was expected and while there was only one flashy return by Antonio Callaway, they didn’t do anything to hurt the Gators, they shut down the UMass return game, and they left no points on the field.
Overall, it was a rather pedestrian but solid opening effort. The Gators have a lot to tweak this week as they prepare for Kentucky who blew a 35-10 lead and lost 44-35 to Southern Miss.