LEXINGTON, Ky. — Florida beat Kentucky despite itself.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks’ turnovers were crippling, and the Gators’ open-field tackling and coverage downfield handicapped the team. But, above all else, the lack of running game hindered an offense that was more talented than the team it played.
In 2018, coach Dan Mullen grabbed 10 wins and a New Year’s Six bowl on the back of 2,771 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground. His game plan has always relied on the run to force the defense up and free his receivers downfield.
But so far this year, with a young and inexperienced offensive line incapable of getting a push at the line, it has seemed that Mullen’s game plan on the ground has been three inches and a cloud of frustration.
“The o-line is one of our younger positions,” Mullen said after the game. “At times they look pretty good, and other times they don’t. Those are growing pains you go through.”
The lack of run game, instead of pushing the defense up, allowed the Kentucky safeties to play further back and make plays deep down the field, the most prevalent instance being an interception by UK safety Tyrell Ajian just before the end zone on the first drive of the game.
Florida had just 20 yards rushing by halftime, a mark Kentucky surpassed in its first drive of the second half. The struggles culminated in a sequence in the third quarter when the offense opted to run the ball four times in a row, resulting in a turnover on downs and Franks being carted off with a season-ending leg injury.
Without a respectable run game (and a reliable play-action established from the threat on the ground) Franks was never comfortable in the pocket, constantly on his back from blitzes sent to throw him off his game. He was forced to throw short for much of the game and, when pestered long enough, gave up the ball two crucial times.
The run game did eventually have a breakthrough when Florida was up late in the fourth quarter: a 76-yard run by wide receiver Josh Hammond on a reverse. Take away that? Florida has just 62 yards on 26 carries, another inefficient performance. And the schedule doesn’t get any easier.
Soon-to-be opponents Auburn and Georgia, which are laden with veterans on their respective front sevens, will take advantage of UF’s lackluster ground game and use it against the Gators better than Miami and Kentucky did.
It remains to be seen what he will adjust before Florida plays Tennessee at home next Saturday.
“We have a tough schedule, I was looking at it,” Mullen said. “We can enjoy this tonight but we gotta get ready for Tennessee.”
Follow Dylan Rudolph on Twitter @dyrudolph. Contact him at [email protected].