The Gators were ranked No. 22 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll and moved up three spots from their Week 4 ranking after a sloppy, but victorious outing against the Charlotte 49ers.
Florida (3-1, 1-0 SEC) defeated the 49ers (1-3, 0-0 AAC) 22-7 Sept. 23 and is on a three-game win streak for the first time since 2020. Despite the victory, there were glaring deficiencies in the Gators’ performance, which allowed Charlotte to stay close throughout a majority of the contest.
“It’s hard to win, and we certainly had to grind that one out,” UF head coach Billy Napier said. “Now, are we happy with everything that happened out there? No.”
There were several mishaps in the Gators’ performance. Florida’s offense failed to move the ball down the field a large part of the second half.
After the Gators marched 95 yards into the endzone on their first drive of the game, UF settled for field goals on its next three drives and added two more field goals in the final half.
Florida sophomore placekicker Trey Smack made his first collegiate start Sept. 23 and hit all five of his field goal attempts. He became the fourth Gators kicker ever to hit five or more field goals in a single contest.
“It’s a good feeling to go five for five,” Smack said. “But I think Adam [Mihalek] could’ve done the same thing.”
The sophomore placekicker earned the starting job after a rough performance from former primary kicker Adam Mihalek, who missed an extra point and field goal attempt against No. 21 Tennessee the week prior.
Smack took over for Mihalek in the second quarter against the Volunteers and drained his first collegiate extra point attempt and field goal attempt from 27 yards out.
“Adam is a great kicker,” he said. “We were battling back and forth in practice all week.”
Smack converted three field goal attempts from within 30 yards during the game. Napier elected to have his sophomore kicker attempt one of the field goals in a fourth-and-one situation, and told reporters the analytics say “Don’t go for it right there.”
Smack’s historic night overshadowed many of the miscues the Gators special teams unit committed. There were two instances when Florida failed to have 11 men on the field along with multiple penalties committed by the unit. Napier challenged the notion of special teams mistakes postgame.
“Multiple penalties?” Napier said. “What were they?”
Early in the game, a 47-yard return by senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall was expunged due to an illegal block in the back penalty, which Napier justified by saying penalties like that are common in the NFL.
“There’s very rarely an NFL return that doesn’t have a penalty,” he said.
While the penalty might be common, it is quite rare to see a team fail to put 11 men on the field two times in a single game.
“We didn't get the returner on right there in the middle of the field, and ultimately because of the sack, that's where the miscue was made,” Napier said. “We're OK with that. We're OK with the returner not being on the field in that situation.”
A similar situation occurred in Florida’s first game of the season against Utah. Eliminating penalties on special teams has been something the Gators have struggled with all season.
“I think it's all going to be very technical and very correctable,” Napier said.
The lone bright spot in Florida’s performance against the 49ers came on the defensive side of the ball. The Gators have continued to stifle their opponent's offenses and forced Charlotte to punt the ball seven times.
Florida sophomore linebacker Shemar James accredited the success to the effort and physicality the unit has shown all throughout the season.
Gators sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams had a forced fumble in the first quarter which was recovered by Charlotte, but set the tempo for the remainder of the game, James said.
“It gave us that spark to start the game, and we kind of rode with that throughout the whole entire game,” he said.
UF has the fifth-best defense in college football in terms of yards allowed per game and the No. 18-best defense in points allowed per game. Last season, Florida ranked No. 87 and No. 97 in points and yards allowed respectively.
The Gators players and locker room have given kudos to defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong for the improvement.
“I think Armstrong just really trusts his players,” UF edge rusher Princely Umanmielen said Sept. 20. “He tells us all the time, 'Good players make good defenses.' So you know, when he's calling plays, he's calling plays based off the players he's got and trying to do it to their strengths.”
Florida will play on the road for its next matchup against the Kentucky Wildcats (4-0, 1-0 SEC) noon Sept. 30 at Kroger Field. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
Luke Adragna is a third-year journalism student and the Florida Gators football reporter at The Alligator. He is a cat ethusiast and completes the NYT Daily Mini in less than a minute each day.