GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For the first time all season, Florida and its fans were able to enjoy the fourth quarter of a win without blood-pressure spikes and mounting tension.
Vanderbilt played tough for the first half, but ultimately the Gators were tougher Saturday.
They overcame yet another in-game quarterback change, wore the Commodores down up front as the game progressed and were able to ride their physical ground game to a comfortable 38-24 victory in The Swamp.
That’s three straight wins for the Gators (3-1, 3-0 SEC) as they remain unbeaten in the conference play.
It wasn’t a flawless performance, but there was more to feel good about than not.
Here’s how the Gators graded out Saturday:
Quarterbacks — B
Luke Del Rio started the game and gave the Gators offense the rhythm and confidence they were hoping he would provide.
He made one of those poise plays on Florida’s second possession Saturday, ducking under a sack and tossing a 25-yard pass to tight end DeAndre Goolsby before taking a hit. He tried to make another of those plays late in the second half, buying time on third-and-long and getting off a pass to Brandon Powell before being driven into the ground by a Vanderbilt defensive lineman.
Unfortunately, that was the last play he’ll make for the Gators this season as he sustained a season-ending left collarbone injury on the hard hit and will have surgery Monday. Now the Gators will never really know what he could have brought to the offense this year.
Del Rio finished 7-of-11 passing for 64 yards while redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks came on to complete 10-of-14 passes for 185 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions.
Franks deserves credit for giving the Gators a lift after Del Rio went down. He threw a 49-yard bomb to Tyrie Cleveland after taking over in the final minute of the second quarter and made some other big plays along the way, including a key third-down strike to Cleveland for an 18-yard gain on a later scoring drive.
He also had some hiccups, which are probably just going to be part of the deal moving forward.
After that long pass to Cleveland took the Gators to the Vanderbilt 9 at the end of the first half, Franks probably should have been intercepted by Vanderbilt’s LaDarius Wiley on an end zone pass intended for Freddie Swain. Then he threw a bit too high to Cleveland on second down on the left side of the end zone and was off target to running back Mark Thompson on third down, as Thompson hauled in the pass but lost his balance in the process.
In the third quarter, there was a botched snap, back-to-back false starts on third-and-1 and an apparent miscommunication with center T.J. McCoy, who seemed to think Franks was under center rather than in the shotgun on a high snap near the goal line. Fair or not, those miscues reflect back on the quarterback, especially one who was replaced a week ago for being inconsistent in his pre-snap responsibilities. Franks also threw another pass at risk of being picked off on that drive, but it tipped off the defender’s hand and into the grasp of Swain for a 33-yard gain.
While it wasn’t smooth, the Gators still scored a touchdown on that drive nonetheless.
The bottom line Saturday is Franks gave the Gators what they needed after Del Rio went down, but he remains a work in progress.
Running backs — A
If ever there was a blueprint for how this Florida offense needs to play moving forward, it was Saturday with the way they leaned on their ground game and got key contributions from all three running backs.
The Gators rushed for 218 yards and 5 touchdowns — five, after not having a running back rush for a TD since the Georgia game last October.
Freshman phenom Malik Davis rushed for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns on 17 carries, Lamical Perine totaled 58 yards and 3 touchdowns on 15 attempts and Thompson added 24 rushing yards and 5 receptions for 39 yards.
Davis is the breakout star of Florida’s offense this fall, but Perine turned in his best performance yet with a pair of fourth-down conversions and in general some very physical runs and Thompson looks revitalized after an underwhelming 206 season.
Excellent effort all around for the running backs Saturday.
Wide receivers/tight ends — B
Cleveland continues to show that he can fill the big-play void left by suspended wideout Antonio Callaway.
The sophomore had just 2 catches for 67 yards Saturday, but he made a terrific catch to haul in that 49-yard reception from Franks late in the second quarter. That was the biggest play of the game, as it gave the offense some reassurance after Del Rio went down while also setting up a game-tying field goal.
He hobbled off with what coach Jim McElwain called an ankle injury later in the game. Senior receiver Brandon Powell (ribs) also did not look to be at full strength while catching just 1 pass and electric freshman Kadarius Toney (1 catch for 5 yards, 3 rushes for 22 yards) had a quiet day.
Credit Swain for maintaining the focus to corral that 33-yard reception on the deflection in the third quarter, and credit tight end Moral Stephens for making 2 catches for 45 yards to key a touchdown drive earlier in the third.
Offensive line — B
The right side of the line had some real issues in pass protection in the first half, but overall this group has showed tremendous growth from that season-opening struggle against Michigan.
The running backs ran hard for those 218 yards, but the line did its part as well.
“The guys up front are starting to get it,” McElwain said. “There at the end, I thought we wore on them pretty good.”
The offensive line showed signs of a breakout in the fourth quarter at Kentucky last week and managed to take another step forward Saturday.
That’s very encouraging, but there is still room for growth here.
Defensive line — A
Even more encouraging was the play on the other side of the line.
Florida’s defensive front was disruptive Saturday, racking up 12 quarterback hurries, 5 tackles for loss and a sack against Vanderbilt. Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur was under consistent duress.
While the Gators defense as a whole didn’t have a great game, the line made a difference.
Redshirt senior defensive end Jordan Sherit has never looked better, notching 5 quarterback hurries and a tackle for loss and sophomore Jachai Polite (3 QBH, 1 sack) continued his 2017 breakout.
There was one sequence in particular that illustrated the defensive line’s impact Saturday.
Florida had just scored to go up 24-17 in the third quarter. The defense had struggled to deliver stops after earlier Gators scores, but this time the line helped seize some momentum for the hosts. On second-and-1, freshman defensive tackle Tedarrell Slaton broke through the line and engulfed running back Ralph Webb for a 2-yard loss. Then on the next play, Sherit charged at Shurmur, forcing a quick incompletion and a punt.
The Gators scored again on the ensuing series and claimed control of the game for good.
Linebackers — B-minus
Vanderbilt rushed for just 46 yards on 20 carries, but it had some success in the passing game while targeting mismatches against Florida’s linebackers.
Sophomore middle linebacker David Reese (6 tackles) continues to look solid and steady, but fellow sophomore Vosean Joseph managed just 3 tackles and continues to have a relatively quiet season.
Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon finished with 1 tackle, and redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson made 3 in his return from a hamstring injury.
Florida contained Vanderbilt’s struggling rushing attack, but the linebackers were a part of the issue in pass coverage.
Defensive backs — C-minus
Vanderbilt passed for 264 yards, getting most of its offense through the air.
The Commodores stayed competitive in the first half for that reason, tying the game at 14-14 midway through the second quarter on a well-designed play that left wide receiver Caleb Scott wide open in the end zone. It’s not clear who was at fault for the breakdown in coverage.
Overall, there were good and bad moments for Florida’s young secondary.
Freshman C.J. Henderson had made a beautiful pass breakup on a deep shot earlier in that second-quarter touchdown drive, tracking the receiver all the way and getting his hand up to bat away an on-the-money pass. A few plays later, though, Shurmur hit Kalija Lipscomb for a 28-yard gain with Henderson and linebacker Jeremiah Moon the closest defenders.
Redshirt freshman nickel C.J. McWilliams later got beat for a 35-yard completion on third-and-10 that set up a go-ahead field goal for the Commodores at the end of the first half.
Beyond the coverage issues, safeties Chauncey Gardner Jr. and Nick Washington continue to struggle in tackling.
Special teams — A
Punter Johnny Townsend helped Florida win the field position game, landing four of his five punts inside the 20-yard line.
And kicker Eddy Pineiro converted his only field goal try, from 21 yards.
The Gators didn’t get much from their return game, but their kick coverage was much improved this week, including a great almost instantaneous tackle by McWilliams on punt coverage.
Coaching — B-plus
Give McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier credit for adjusting to an unexpected quarterback change after Del Rio’s injury.
There were some nice offensive play-calls before and after the QB change, including the 17-yard wheel route to Perine on the first touchdown drive, the use of the heavy packages at the goal line with defensive linemen CeCe Jefferson and Sherit and linebacker R.J. Raymond in to block, the trust to let Franks uncork the deep ball to Cleveland, the open routes to Stephens and the structure and organization of the rushing attack in general.
It wasn’t a great defensive performance, but again, the pressure up front made a difference.
Overall, there’s not much to gripe about here this week. It was a good win.
The post Report card: Gators earn high marks in key areas after big win over Vanderbilt appeared first on SEC Country.
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