The second year of the Dan Mullen era was largely a success. Florida won double-digit games in the regular season for the first time since 2015, defeated its two in-state rivals in the same season for the first time since 2008 and won the Orange Bowl.
The 2019 season also brought plenty of big, memorable plays. How do we figure out which ones were the most significant?
To do this, I used cfbscrapR to find the Expected Points Added (EPA) for every play for the Gators in 2019. EPA essentially attaches a value before and after every play according to its game situation. The difference between the expected points value before and after the play is its EPA.
So what we’re looking for here are big plays that happened in situations where the offense generally isn’t expected to score or move the ball. Here are the eight biggest plays Florida made all season:
8. Lamical Perine opens up the Orange Bowl - EPA: 5.02
The Gators’ rushing attack last season was either boom or bust all season, and that carried over into the Orange Bowl against Virginia.
After two passing plays, Perine took the handoff, bounced to the left, split two defenders and burned another for a 61-yard touchdown just 40 seconds into the game. That was the first of three touchdowns for the senior, who had 138 rushing yards on 13 carries.
Perine’s touchdown was the beginning of a huge night for Florida’s offense, which put up 36 points and over 540 yards of offense. UF’s 244 rushing yards against UVA were the most it had all season.
7. Kadarius Toney takes a screen pass to the house against Miami - EPA: 5.25
Just one play after a gutsy fake punt in its own territory on its first drive of the season, Florida hit on a big play early in its matchup against Miami.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks faked the handoff and dished it to receiver Kadarius Toney. He sped past one tackle, dodged two more and slipped away from another two defenders to take it to the house for the first touchdown of the season for Florida. The 66-yard touchdown was the third-longest passing play of the season for the Gators, and it was certainly their biggest play against the Hurricanes.
6. Trevon Grimes gets the ball rolling against Vanderbilt - EPA: 5.43
Coming off a tough loss to Georgia, the Gators had every reason to sleepwalk through their matchup against lowly Vanderbilt. After a first half where it only scored 14 points, Florida looked lackadaisical on offense.
But on 1st and 10 from the Florida 34, receiver Trevon Grimes caught a Kyle Trask pass on UF’s first play from scrimmage of the second half on a quick curl route and took off down the sideline. He tiptoed the sideline after a shove from a Vanderbilt defender and stayed in bounds en route to a 66-yard touchdown.
From there, the Gators outscored Vanderbilt 42-0 in the second half in a 56-0 win. Only one Florida drive in the second half didn’t end in a touchdown.
5. First home touchdown of the season against UT-Martin - EPA: 5.48
It’s hard to remember Franks as the Gators’ starting quarterback because of the rise of Trask after Franks’ season-ending injury during the third game of the season. During that short stretch, Franks was wildly inconsistent. He was under center for three of the four longest passing plays Florida had last season but was also responsible for four of the seven worst plays of the season for UF by EPA.
However, against UT-Martin, Franks was nearly perfect, completing 25 of 27 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns. He finished with 10 yards per attempt and a QBR of 89.0, his highest QBR as a starter at UF.
Up just 3-0 on the Skyhawks in the second quarter, Florida’s offensive line bought enough time on a 1st and 10 for Franks to scour the field and unleash a bomb downfield to receiver Van Jefferson, who had a step or five on an overmatched Skyhawks secondary. Jefferson took it to the house, and the rout was on from there. Fireworks were lit at the Swamp for the first time in 2019, and the Gators were 2-0 on the season.
4. “Say goodbye, Freddie!” - EPA: 6.17
The game against then-No. 7 Auburn was supposed to be a make-or-break game for Dan Mullen’s squad. It was the first leg of a four-game stretch where Florida played three top-10 opponents, and it would be the last time the Gators would play in Gainesville for over a month. It was also the most winnable of those three top-10 matchups.
Throw in “College Gameday” making its return to campus for the first time since 2012, and the stage was set. The Swamp was packed and ready to explode.
It didn’t take long.
Slants are an especially great tool for teams that struggle to block for extended periods of time, and UF was no exception. Florida quarterbacks targeted receivers running slant routes 53 times, by far the most common route for the Gators according to SEC Statcat.
On Florida’s second play from scrimmage, Trask saw receiver Freddie Swain was matched up against Auburn linebacker K.J. Britt. He took advantage of the mismatch after Swain easily gained separation on a slant.
From there, Swain split two defenders, and he was gone for a 64-yard touchdown. The Gators had a huge touchdown not even two minutes into the game, and the sellout crowd was going ballistic.
But that wouldn't be the only play from that game to get the crowd on its feet.
3. Dameon Pierce runs wild against the Gamecocks - EPA: 6.29
On a wet, miserable day in Columbia, South Carolina, things were not looking great for the Gators.
Trask threw an interception on the second play of the second half, and the Gamecocks quickly took advantage with a touchdown to take a 17-10 lead. A Gators offense that relied on throwing the ball struggled to adapt to the misty conditions, punting four times in the first half alone.
Sophomore running back Dameon Pierce in one play. Pierce found a gap on the left side, broke a tackle and was past the defense. He charged down the field for a 75-yard touchdown, which would tie the game at 17. Just be like the refs in Columbia and excuse the fistful of jersey receiver Tyrie Cleveland held for about 45 yards.
Counting the Pierce touchdown, Florida scored 21 of the next 24 points to escape with a 38-27 win.
With the graduation of Perine, plays like this show that the Gators’ backfield could still be in good hands in 2020.
2. Josh Hammond clinches a comeback win in Lexington - EPA: 6.69
There’s no such thing as a “normal” game between Florida and Kentucky anymore. In 2017, the Gators needed a miraculous 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter led by their backup quarterback to stun the Wildcats in Lexington. Just a year later, Kentucky shocked the Florida faithful in Gainesville to defeat UF for the first time since the Reagan administration.
In 2019, the Gators needed, well, a miraculous 11-point comeback in the fourth quarter led by their backup quarterback to beat Kentucky on the road.
The script was familiar, but this time it was a different quarterback. Trask stepped into the game after Franks’ injury and gave the Gators a much-needed boost. The redshirt junior threw a touchdown pass on his first drive and ran for another on his third drive to suddenly thrust UF into a 22-21 lead.
Much like in 2017, Kentucky missed a field goal to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, but the Gators were still deep in their own territory and needed to kill more time.
On 3rd and 10, receiver Josh Hammond motioned across the field and took the ball from Trask. He found a seam toward the sideline and broke through the Kentucky defense for a 76-yard rushing touchdown.
Florida couldn’t convert on a two-point conversion that would have completely iced the game, but it held off Kentucky to escape with a 29-21 win.
1. Lamical Perine goes the distance against Auburn - EPA: 6.89
This is the play of 2019 for Florida, and you probably don’t need me to do the math to agree with that sentiment.
Leading 17-13 in the fourth quarter, the Gators were pinned deep in their own territory. Neither team was having much success on offense, but all Florida needed was one more explosive play.
Perine shed a tackle at the line of scrimmage and bounced to the right on the sideline. From there, he shook off another tackler and sped away from the Auburn defense for an 88-yard touchdown.
Florida 24, Auburn 13.
That was the last scoring play of the game, as UF’s defense pitched a shutout against the Tigers in the second half. The Gators scored their biggest win of the season and scored what was technically an upset at home.
Parker Fleming at Frogs O’ War wrote that high EPA plays are basically the most exciting or most memorable plays.
And this was certainly the most memorable play for the Gators in 2019.
Follow Brendan on Twitter @Bfarrell727 and contact him at [email protected].