There’s something about 11 a.m. in Nashville that leaves Florida’s offense flowing like molasses.
Two years ago, the Gators dug out of a 21-3 hole. Saturday, Vanderbilt again forced a game of catch-up against No. 6 Florida. True freshman quarterback Ken Seals completed 11 of 12 passes for 157 yards, a touchdown and seven first downs into the second quarter.
The Commodores (0-7) ran play after play using a faster tempo to force defenders out of position. They would finish with 406 total yards, 319 through the air, 21 first downs and 6 yards per play against the playoff-hopeful Gators (6-1).
The stadium was nearly empty, with 1,147 fans filling Vanderbilt Stadium. Vanderbilt used artificial noise to remedy what the stands lacked. It created an unusual set of circumstances for Florida to overcome mentally.
“They were blaring music like a rock concert the whole game,” UF coach Dan Mullen said.
Mullen alluded to changes earlier in the week. They learned the best ways to travel following the team’s trip to College Station, Texas, a month ago. Food on the plane was limited to make sure masks never left a face. The team opted to use the field for their locker room to provide more space. When the game was over, the Gators stayed on the field for their meeting. They missed a blanket and basket for a picnic as players ate sandwiches and spoke to family.
But that’s little reason for one of this year’s premier teams to start a game sputtering and end with a ho-hum rating.
A Heisman-favorite quarterback and one of the nation’s most diverse receiver groups powers the Gators' offense. But they didn’t take the lead until the closing seconds of the first half.
Mullen said the game’s sluggishness came as a symptom of an off week of practice.
The stat sheet shows that Florida’s defense found success as the game elapsed. Cornerback Kaiir Elam sealed the game with an athletic interception on an underthrown pass — his second of the season. Defensive tackle Kyree Campbell had nine total tackles. The defense found ways to plug the gaps with five tackles for a loss.
Vanderbilt preyed on slants and skinny post routes, both of which plagued Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense all season, to carve its way down the field. The exploits kept the game within reach.
The first drive provided glaring examples of Derek Mason's gameplan in action. Vanderbilt capitalized on miscommunication during an 18-yard completion to tight end Ben Bresnahan and a 16-yard touchdown to wide receiver Chris Pierce.
Elam explained the miscommunication on the first touchdown after the game, saying by the time the Gators were lining up to defend in the right spots, the ball was snapped and there was little time to adjust.
“I think it’s just something we have to clean up,” Elam said.
The Commodores accumulated seven more passing plays of 15 or more yards and one rushing attempt that managed 15 yards. In fact, the only area Florida’s defense found success was stopping the run, allowing only 2.6 yards per rush.
In the seven games played this season, Grantham’s defense showed a preference for allowing chunk plays over the middle than big shots down the field. It’s a dangerous habit to get comfortable with.
Quarterback Kyle Trask and his weapons continue to bail out slow starts, especially those the offense manifests. Against stiffer competition this season, the odds are it won’t be enough to save the day. All the reason Mullen wants to tune his team’s engine with three regular-season games left on the schedule.
“The offensive breakdowns, the defensive breakdowns, they’re all concerns for me,” Mullen said. “There’s a myriad of things you continue to go look at to make sure we’re doing a good job.”
Contact Christian Ortega at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @unofficialchris.
Gators safety Trey Dean III reaches for the football in Florida's game against Vanderbilt. The Gators hung 38 points on the Commodores in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday, winning their sixth game of the season.