“What does winning football look like?”
UF head coach Billy Napier posed that question to the media Monday following the Gators’ loss to Tenneseee. In the defeat, the Gators were solid at moments on either side of the ball. However, crucial defensive errors and a late turnover sealed UF’s fate in Neyland Stadium that day.
Florida is now 2-2 on the year and 0-2 in the SEC. The Gators have looked both promising and stress-inducing to fans against ranked programs. The same can be said for their win against unranked South Florida. This leaves a very important question for fans and Napier alike: Can this team consistently play winning football?
Although that question may linger regardless of the result of this weekend’s game versus Eastern Washington, which was moved to Sunday due to Hurricane Ian, the Gators will at least have an opportunity to walk the walk of a winning team. Florida takes on the Eagles at noon in what on paper seems to be favorable circumstances for UF. However, the team’s performances against USF has left an air of uncertainty hanging over the Gators.
Florida will look to have a dominant performance on either side of the ball. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson, who passed for a career high 453 yards against Tennessee, will look to put on another all-time performance against Eastern Washington.
Considered a top-five prospect at his position headed into the season, Richardson’s ability as a pocket passer has recently been put into question. He has a chance to showcase those skills while under less pressure against the lowest-ranked defense in the Big Sky conference.
“We knew going into the park that we were going to give him the ball and let him go play. We'll continue to do that,” Napier said. “It's just part of him being a young player, no different than you draft an NFL quarterback in the first round and, hey, he's your guy, let's go.”
In addition to the passing game, Florida’s running back trio of Montrell Johnson, Trevor Etienne and Nay’Quan Wright should be able to maintain their solid production against the Eagles defense, which is allowing 302.7 yards on the ground per game this season.
Rather than keep up production, Florida’s defense will attempt to use Sunday’s matchup as a make-up for the loss to Tennessee. Costly blown coverages by the Gators secondary ended up being the difference between the two teams last Saturday in Knoxville. Napier accepts the team’s responsibility and recognizes the need to eliminate mistakes.
“I think there's two [plays] in particular where we just have one player bust the coverage,” Napier said. “I think there is a communication element to that, but a lot of it has to do with discipline to execute, the ability to do your job at a critical moment in a critical time.”
Gators defensive coordinator Patrick Toney has done an acceptable job. The blame doesn’t seem to fall on the defensive scheme. However, Napier and his staff have continually emphasized the need to take the responsibility as their own and help their players.
Sunday’s game is far from the end-all, be-all of Florida’s season, but it does have a slew of Southeastern Conference opponents waiting right around the corner. The Gators’ only other non-conference opponent after the Eagles is historic rival Florida State.
If Florida is in need of a confidence builder, this could be the last chance it gets.
Kickoff is set for noon Sunday. The game will stream on SEC Network+.
Jackson Castellano is a second-year sports journalism student and the assistant sports editor at the Alligator. In the past, he has covered UF basketball and baseball for the Alligator and was an associate editor at ClutchPoints.