It took Florida more than a quarter of football to find the end zone against Tennessee-Martin.
Despite facing the inferior Skyhawks — who finished last season 2-9 and second to last in the FCS Ohio Valley Conference — on their home field, the Gators mustered only an Evan McPherson field goal in the first 21 minutes of play.
The touchdown drought came to an end with 8:45 left in the second quarter when senior receiver Van Jefferson got behind the UTM defense on a deep post. Quarterback Feleipe Franks found his top target, who trotted across the goal line uncontested. It opened the floodgates for UF’s offense, which pulled away in large part due to the suffocating Florida defense. The Gators eventually blanked the Skyhawks, 45-0.
But before the big play, Franks — though perfect in terms of completion percentage — led a vanilla offense, completing all eight of his passes for only 37 yards. Conservative play-calling and trying to establish the run through brute force resulted in a low-scoring, sloppy first 30 minutes.
“We have a long way to go,” coach Dan Mullen said after the game. “We have a lot to clean up off of this game.”
Does that ring a bell? It should.
In their first contest against Miami, the Gators managed only seven first-half points. Their lone scoring play in the first two quarters came on a 66-yard screen pass to receiver Kadarius Toney. Aside from that pass, Franks was only 6 of 8 for 38 yards in the first half.
Just as it did against the Hurricanes, Florida relied on big plays rather than consistent, methodical drives.
That’s fine against teams like UT Martin, whose secondary was mostly powerless against UF’s bigger, more athletic receivers.
But against better opponents such as Kentucky, who the Gators face next Saturday, this strategy could land Florida in deep trouble. After all, it nearly cost it the Miami game.
That’s not to say Franks didn’t play well against the Skyhawks. The redshirt junior was sharp, connecting on 25 of his 27 passes for 270 yards and 2 touchdowns.
But he’s capable of doing more. He showed it in the final four games of 2018, he showed it when it mattered most against Miami and he showed it again Saturday night.
Mullen needs to trust his upperclassman quarterback more. He needs to give him the opportunity to lead drives.
Sure, he’s mistake prone. But he’s at his best when he’s allowed to fling the ball around the field. He has proven that time and time again.
If Florida’s SEC Championship goals and fringe playoff dreams are to be realized, it needs to trust its field general to make plays through the air.
Because if UF’s plan is to wait for Jefferson to get behind, say, Georgia’s secondary and let Franks throw it up backyard football-style, it could be a disappointing season for the Florida faithful.
Tyler Nettuno is the sports editor of The Alligator. Follow him on Twitter @TylerNettuno or contact him at [email protected].