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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Lagway, Mertz and Tre Wilson III highlight Florida in 2024 Orange and Blue Game

Junior kicker Trey Smack made all four of his field goals for the Blue Team, including a game-winning attempt as time expired

Florida quarterback Graham Mertz in the huddle with his Blue team during the Orange and Blue Game on Saturday, April 13. Photo by Ryan Friedenberg
Florida quarterback Graham Mertz in the huddle with his Blue team during the Orange and Blue Game on Saturday, April 13. Photo by Ryan Friedenberg

With two seconds remaining on the clock, junior kicker Trey Smack took the field in a similar position as last year’s Orange and Blue Game with an opportunity to deliver a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Redshirt senior quarterback Graham Mertz mustered a drive with under one minute left in the matchup to keep his team’s head above water. Smack then showed tremendous poise as he struck a kick from 37 yards out as the clock hit triple-zeros, allowing the Blue Team to secure the victory.

The Blue Team defeated the Orange Team 20-19 in a tightly contested Spring Game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday.

“We're deeper,” Florida head coach Billy Napier said. “We've got more height and length. We've got more veteran players, and I think the young talent, the freshmen and the portal players, are going to help us. That to go along with the changes that we made after evaluating the season, I feel good about where we're at.”

Florida will have to wait until Aug. 31 to play a meaningful game on their schedule. However, the Gators had their first opportunity in 2024 to put their talents on display in front of over 48,000 fans at the Orange and Blue Game.

For the first time in his collegiate career, the 2023 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year took the field in front of the home crowd in Gainesville. However, it wasn’t the start that Florida fans were expecting from freshman quarterback DJ Lagway.

On the opening drive of the game, the former five-star recruit threw two incompletions on deep routes and was sacked once as the Orange Team’s offense went three-and-out. After perhaps showing some jitters in his first start in The Swamp, Lagway settled into a grove.

The freshman facilitated a seven-play, 70-yard drive that was capped off with a 22-yard dart thrown to sophomore wide receiver Aidan Mizell up the middle for the first touchdown of the contest.

After Lagway started 0-for-3, he bounced back nicely completing four of his next seven pass attempts to close out the half. He showed great touch on a deep ball thrown down the left sideline for a 32-yard completion to redshirt junior wideout Taylor Spierto.

“I think the big thing here is we have to get DJ to a place where he's confident and then a place where we trust him and his teammates trust him, Napier said. “I think he's definitely proven to be mature enough. His work ethic is outstanding.”

Despite showing glimpses of his talent, it was far from a perfect performance for Lagway who will learn from the mistakes. On 3rd-and-6 midway through the third quarter, Lagway was intercepted on a short pass by redshirt senior Mannie Nunnery.

Highlighting the backfield for the Orange Team was freshman running back Jadan Baugh. The former Arkansas commit finished with 12 carries for 77 yards. Baugh’s best run of the day came on a 25-yard burst to the right side into the Blue Team’s territory.

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“Another rookie that put on a show out there today,” Napier said. “It was fun to watch. He’s 238 pounds. I went to Jadan's school in January and initially, we thought he was a linebacker. I go to the school. That was the initial evaluation. He's playing linebacker. Then we find out that he wants to play running back, and we had a really good evaluation on him.”

After watching a low-scoring 10-7 final score in the 2023 Orange and Blue Game, Florida fans were treated to a much more engaging offensive affair in the first half of this year’s version.

UF’s starting quarterback Graham Mertz wasn’t exactly known for airing it out last season. But Mertz was consistently taking shots down the field on Saturday. 

The Blue Team’s offense had three pass plays that were good for gains of 20 yards or more. Mertz’s biggest play of the game came on a 60-yard pass that hit sophomore wide receiver Tre Wilson III in stride for a touchdown with 1:38 left in the second quarter to give the Orange Team a 10-3 advantage.

Wilson III was sensational for his squad and showed that he has the ability to be a No. 1 option for Mertz come this Fall following the departure of Ricky Pearsall to the NFL Draft. He carved the Blue Team’s defense for eight receptions for 128 yards and a touchdown.

“These last two months in the spring have definitely been beneficial for me,” Wilson III said. “It’s not something I would say I missed out last year on, but we here now and we can’t really change the past so we gonna go forward from here.”

Senior running back Montrell Johnson will likely earn the starting spot when the regular season gets underway. However, Johnson had a hard time gaining any momentum on the ground in Saturday’s contest.

Florida’s leading rusher from 2023 was held to just 18 yards on seven carries. With Johnson struggling, redshirt junior running back Ja’Kobi Jackson rose to the occasion to finish with a team-high 62 yards after carrying the ball just five times.

Lagway once again connected with Spierto with seconds remaining in the second quarter for what would be the last touchdown of the matchup to give the Orange Team a 17-13 lead at the half.

In his first performance in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Lagway finished 12-for-21 for 173 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Mertz showed high praise for the progress that Lagway has made throughout the Spring so far.

“He’s done it all spring,” Mertz said. “It’s been cool to kind of see him take that progression and I thought he did a fantastic job today.”

Field goal kicking proved to be the difference in the second half. Junior kicker Trey Smack finished the day a perfect 4-for-4 on his attempts for the Blue Team with his longest field goal coming from 39 yards out. On the other hand, it was a tough outing for redshirt junior kicker Hunter Smith, who missed all three of his field goal attempts for the Orange Team.

Napier received strong contributions from the star position defensively. Sophomore defensive back Sharif Denson highlighted the Orange Team's performance with an interception on a pass over the middle thrown by Mertz.

“Every day those guys [star position players] are in the facility trying to learn,” junior defensive back Devin Moore said. “Doing all the extra things, working hard in the weight room. There’s not that many subs at that position so the amount of reps they took and the amount of things they were able to experience this spring, it was amazing to see.”

Mertz showed great poise down the stretch for the Blue Team, facilitating what would end up being the game-winning drive. He finished the game 15-for-27 for 243 yards, one touchdown and one interception. 

But the sixth-year college quarterback knows that there is plenty of unfinished business for the upcoming season after last year’s team finished just 5-7.

“That’s not what Florida football is,” Mertz said. “That’s what keeps us waking up every day fired up to get in here and work. And that is the unfinished business because it wasn’t fun for anybody so we know what we’re working for.”

UF will open its 2024 regular season Aug. 31 against the University of Miami at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. 

Contact Max at mtucker@alligator.org. Follow him on X @Max_Tuckr1.

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Max Tucker

Max Tucker is a junior transfer student at UF. After obtaining his A.A. in Journalism from Santa Fe College in 2023, he chose further his education at Florida's College of Journalism and Communications. Max is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Journalism with a specialization in sports and media. He enjoys golfing and going to the beach with his friends in his free time.


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