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Saturday, January 28, 2023

New-look Gators look for first win in over a month

Florida football plays its first home game in five weeks and tries to return to .500 without former defensive coordinator and offensive line coach

<p>Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson drops back during Florida&#x27;s game against Georgia Oct. 30, 2021. All eyes will be on the Gators signal caller Saturday night when UF opens its season by hosting the Utah Utes. </p>

Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson drops back during Florida's game against Georgia Oct. 30, 2021. All eyes will be on the Gators signal caller Saturday night when UF opens its season by hosting the Utah Utes.

Florida running back Dameon Pierce dove through the ravine his offensive line opened along the goal line and into the orange-painted grass of the end zone for the Gators’ sixth touchdown of the afternoon.

The day was Oct. 9, and the score gave the Gators a 42-0 lead over Vanderbilt. As of now, Pierce’s plunge is also the most recent touchdown in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and the Florida football program couldn’t feel more different.

The Gators lost each of their three games since that October afternoon, including a pair of losses to unranked teams. Florida tumbled out of the Associated Press Top 25 the following week with a loss to Louisiana State. After losses to Georgia and South Carolina, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive line coach John Hevesy were relieved from their duties this past weekend.

A Florida (4-5, 2-5) team a month removed from victory returns home for the first time in five weeks Saturday looking to stabilize a spiraling season against the Samford Bulldogs (4-5, 3-4).

The Gators defense will take the field without Grantham at the helm for the first time all season in desperate need of a bounce-back performance. An unranked, paltry South Carolina squad hung 40 total points on Florida last weekend, 33 of which surrendered by Grantham’s unit, in what became the fourth-year defensive coordinator’s swan song.

Linebackers coach Christian Robinson will assume defensive play-calling duties for the remainder of the season, the team announced Monday. After surrendering an average of 41 points over their last three games, the Gators get a break from Southeastern Conference competition with the Football Championship Subdivision-level Bulldogs.

Samford hasn’t exactly run a gauntlet through the Southern Conference in 2021, but on paper, its offense is nothing to sneeze at. The Bulldogs scored 40 or more points in five of their nine games so far in 2021, and they average 36.78 points and 450.7 total yards per game. 

The majority of Samford’s success came along the ground, with 22 of its 39 offensive touchdowns scored by someone’s legs. Junior running back Jay Stanton and graduate quarterback Liam Welch form a two-headed monster in the backfield, combining for 923 yards and 10 touchdowns on 187 carries, while senior running back Demarcus Ware has found the end zone seven times himself.

Welch has thrown 17 touchdowns and 2,697 yards through nine games, but he boasts a similar Achilles heel to both of Florida’s quarterbacks — interceptions. Opposing defenses have picked off Welch 13 times already this season, and he’s thrown multiple interceptions in four games.

Florida offers question marks of its own under center, particularly revolving around the health of redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson. The young quarterback exited the Gators Oct. 30 loss to Georgia late with a head injury. Head coach Dan Mullen said he was cleared to play against South Carolina before he injured his knee dancing in a hotel room last Friday night, and his status for this weekend now remains in question.

The Gators need to win two of their closing three games to qualify for a bowl game, and they could get halfway there with a victory over the Bulldogs. The game is set to kickoff from The Swamp Saturday at noon.

Contact Ryan Haley at rhaley@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley, a UF journalism senior with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida, is Summer 2022's Engagement Managing Editor. 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.

DM Ryan on Twitter or shoot him an email.


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