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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Early errors: Florida’s first-half woes continue in Kentucky upset

The No. 20 Gators again failed to get off to a sterling start against a conference foe

Florida head coach Dan Mullen during the Gators' game against South Florida on Sept. 11, 2021.
Florida head coach Dan Mullen during the Gators' game against South Florida on Sept. 11, 2021.

Florida quarterback Emory Jones stood just shy of the Kentucky logo at Kroger Field, waiting for a play call that never came.

As the redshirt junior looked to the Florida sideline, the Gators’ trainers and staff began jogging to the far side of the field. The orange and blue offensive line slowly stood, Jones stood frozen for a moment, and the UF offense began to filter back toward its locker room for halftime.

The No. 20 Florida Gators lost their second game of the season in Lexington, Kentucky, on Oct. 2, a 20-13 upset to the Wildcats, to eliminate any postseason dreams. Head coach Dan Mullen and his team got the ball back with just under two minutes before halftime and three timeouts to play with, but Mullen instead elected to let the second quarter bleed out, closing out the latest in a long line of recent first-half mismanagement for the Gators. 

Florida allowed just 44 yards of offense between four of Kentucky’s five drives in the first half. Outside of Wildcats wideout Wan’Dale Robinson taking a screen pass and scampering 41 yards to the end zone, the Gators defense surrendered 88 total yards on 22 other plays.

So, how was the supposed No. 10 team in the country beating an unranked opponent by three points?

Florida offered a conservative aerial gameplan, as Jones completed 10 of his 11 first-half passes, but only three gained more than 10 yards. The Gators punted on a fourth and 3 from the Kentucky 41-yard line on their opening possession. Their fourth drive saw a third and 1 balloon into third and 11 after a pair of false start penalties, two of eight such offenses on the night.

The curiously close game continued a concerning trend for the Gators under Mullen’s tenure: a history of starting slow in the first 30 minutes and playing down to inferior opposition.

A week ago, Florida took its home field against Tennessee. While the Gators elevated their national status into the mesosphere by nearly toppling No. 1 Alabama the week before, the Volunteers limped to Gainesville two weeks removed from a loss to Pittsburgh. Mullen and his squad seemed destined for a romp.

Florida led by three at halftime.

Even in the vaunted Alabama performance, the team put itself in a massive hole early with three first-quarter Tide touchdowns and a 12-point halftime deficit. Florida outscored Alabama 20-10 in the second half, but the early hole the Gators found themselves in was dug by their own shovel.

Mullen’s early issues aren’t solely a 2021 problem, either. Last year, during an 10-game all-Southeastern Conference schedule, Florida clung to a one-possession lead at the break in three games — twice to unranked opponents — and trailed unranked Louisiana State 24-17 through two quarters. In three more games, a score in the final two minutes of the first half prevented a one-score lead.

To repeat in less words: Against Florida’s last 14 SEC opponents, the Gators either trailed or led by one possession in the final two minutes of the first half 10 times. In Mullen’s past eight conference games, including the conference championship, he’s been outscored 128-118 in the first 30 minutes.

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For context, defending national champion Alabama led by less than 14 points at halftime three times in its previous 16 games against Power 5 opponents, including a 18-point lead over Tennessee and 25-point lead over Kentucky last season. No. 2 Georgia, Mullen’s primary opposition in the SEC East, led by 18 or more points in five of its previous 13 Power 5 games. 

Holding Mullen to the standard of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, a seven-time national champion, isn’t a fair bar, but the two have played a lot of the same opposition within the previous two years, including the Volunteers and the Wildcats, and the overlap betrays the gap which remains between the two programs.

The Gators found moral victories in a pair of one-possession losses to the Tide over the previous 10 months, but if Mullen wants to avoid speed bumps like LSU a season ago and Kentucky last night, he can’t let teams hang around for the first three quarters.

Contact Ryan Haley at Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.

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