Florida score, takeaways: Emory Jones struggles, Anthony Richardson shines as No. 13 Gators beat FAU

By Adam Silverstein
September 5, 2021
Florida score, takeaways: Emory Jones struggles, Anthony Richardson shines as No. 13 Gators beat FAU
Football

Image Credit: @GatorsFB on Twitter

The way the No. 13 Florida Gators opened the 2021 college football season on Saturday night was both completely expected and naturally frustrating. While any team trying to ingratiate a new quarterback after losing nearly 75% of its offense from a year ago is bound for struggles, Florida believed it had the right guy to take over where Kyle Trask left off, even if his skillset was not at all similar.

Instead, after just 60 minutes on the gridiron, the Gators are smack dab in the middle of a quarterback controversy one game into the season despite never being in danger of falling to the visiting FAU Owls. As anticipated, Florida never trailed in its 35-14 win over FAU and looked poised for a shutout until its defense performed … as completely expected, itself naturally frustrating at times.

The Gators (1-0) have one more tune-up game left before they welcome No. 1 Alabama in one of the most anticipated regular-season games of the year. What went down on Saturday evening in The Swamp? Let’s dive into some takeaways from UF’s first game of the season.

1. Quarterback controversy, in more ways than one: Redshirt junior Emory Jones waited four years to start a game for Florida, and he started off with a bang by leading a pair of touchdown drives on the Gators’ first two possessions. If one turned the game off entering the second quarter, they might wonder how Jones’ job is potentially in jeopardy. What he did over the next two quarters — playing so poorly he did not see the final 15 minutes — is where the answer lies.

Jones threw a red zone interception in the second quarter, staring down the wrong receiver and throwing the ball flat when it needed to be lofted. On the next series, he didn’t realize Florida had fourth-and-goal inside the 5 and ran the wrong play (which failed), exasperating head coach Dan Mullen. That resulted in two consecutive red zone trips without points due directly to Jones’ miscues. He did bounce back to lead a 15-play, 88-yard drive that ended in a touchdown to start the third quarter, but Jones later stared down his receiver again, throwing late and short for a second interception on the next series. Jones’ final line: 17 of 27 passing for 113 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and 74 yards rushing … as a redshirt junior … against FAU.

“I don’t really feel that good about [my performance], honestly,” Jones said. “I definitely have to play better, and just overall, we have to play better. We just have to get back in the lab. I feel like I still made a lot of mistakes early in the game that you probably couldn’t see. I missed too many throws that I never do. It’s just getting more comfortable, just being out there actually being the starter.”

The displeasure with Jones’ performance was apparent from the sideline to the stands to social media. That on its own would not be enough to put Jones’ job in question if it was not for the stellar play of redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson, who Mullen had already decided would get some work in the game. Richardson, to put it simply, was electric, though even his game had holes.

After picking up 28 yards rushing early in the second quarter (on the same series Jones threw his first INT), Richardson returned to start the fourth quarter. He ran for 25 yards, converted a fourth-and-4 for 41 yards and threw a 36-yard pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Ja’Markis Weston as part of a seven-play, 73-yard touchdown drive. On the next series, Richardson took off down the sideline for a 73-yard rushing touchdown of his own. And then on his final series of the game, he ran for 22 yards to convert a third-and-20 before providing another of the game’s top highlights: a difficult run to the sideline where he broke two tackles and leapfrogged an approaching defender.

Despite the big plays with his legs — Richardson totaled 160 yards on seven carries, becoming the first Florida quarterback to eclipse 100 yards in a game since Jeff Driskel — he was extremely inefficient throwing the ball. Richardson completed just 3 of 8 passes for 40 yards; removing his 36-yard bomb to Weston, he connected on 2 of 7 passes for 4 yards. That’s certainly not going to cut it, though it’s not like he took the majority of first-string reps in practice this week.

“He’s exciting with the ball in his hand, isn’t he? Running around making some plays,” Mullen said of Richardson. “I think he’s going to be a great player for us. I think you saw that tonight. You saw his athleticism. He’s a special guy with the ball in his hand.”

So yes, there is absolutely a quarterback controversy at UF, even if Mullen doesn’t want to admit it. The coach said that Jones is “obviously” still the starter, noting both made explosive plays but also missed reads. “Our concern is we missed some reads we shouldn’t have missed, and a couple checks. That’s stuff we gotta get cleaned up,” Mullen said.

The question is whether Richardson gets chances to throw the ball against South Florida next week as part of the game plan because the Gators must create options themselves before welcoming the Crimson Tide in two weeks. If Jones is going to throw two interceptions and struggle passing the ball against FAU, what’s going to happen against Alabama?

2. At least they can run: Florida has not been an overly successful rushing team under Mullen, but you would not know that by watching Saturday’s game. The Gators totaled 400 yards rushing against the Owls, the most in any game under Mullen. Richardson not only had the sixth 100+ yard rushing game by a quarterback in program history (one by Driskel, four by Tim Tebow), his touchdown scamper was the longest by a quarterback since Trey Burton vs. Tennessee and longest for any player since that same year, 2012.

Richardson was the leading rusher with 160 yards, but redshirt senior running back Malik Davis was outstanding, taking 14 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. Senior Dameon Pierce was mostly given inside runs, but he scored twice on six carries and caught five passes for 25 yards. The lack of passing resulted in redshirt senior Rick Wells being the leading receiver on Saturday; he also scored his first career touchdown. There was not a single pass completed to a tight end, though seven different playmakers received the ball.

“We’re going to do what our guys do well,” said Mullen, who noted that quarterback scrambles led to the Gators being unbalanced. “If we got to lead the nation in rushing, we’ll do that. Last year, we led it in passing.”

3. Defense remains a question mark: It’s tough to create too many conclusions from a game against FAU, but Florida’s defense simultaneously looked more stout up front and exactly the same in the secondary. The Gators got pressure all night with six sacks and six tackles for loss; redshirt senior defensive end Zachary Carter was responsible for three of each along with a forced fumble. Sophomore Gervon Dexter was the recipient of two fumbles in the game, while redshirt senior Jeremiah Moon always seemed to be around the ball. (Moon, by the way, is the first player in program history to see the field over six different seasons.)

Florida shut FAU out through three quarters, but in the fourth, it allowed two touchdowns through a combination of untimely penalties and blown coverages. It appeared as if a team with better playmakers could have taken advantage of gaps that the Owls struggled to execute against, and while that’s not a concern for the USF game, it will be a major problem when UF begins its SEC schedule with the defending national champions.

4. Odds and ends: Florida is now 4-0 all-time against FAU, outscoring the in-state opponent 155-51 … the Gators have won 32 straight home openers dating back to 1990, the longest active streak in the nation … under Mullen, the Gators are 21-3 when scoring first, 26-2 when leading after the third quarter, 20-0 when allowing 20 points or fewer and 22-0 when outrushing their opponents … Florida improved to 22-3 against unranked teams and 11-1 against nonconference opponents … the Gators have scored 24+ points in 27 of their last 30 games … Florida has posted 400+ yards of total offense in 11 consecutive games, the longest such streak since at least 1981 … UF is one of two FBS teams nationally (Alabama) that has not lost to an opponent that finished the season with a losing record since 2004 … Florida has scored in 411 consecutive games, an NCAA record … the Gators announced an attendance of 86,840 … Florida wore all white at home in a rare uniform choice, and The Swamp featured white end zones for the first time in its history

5. What’s next? Florida travels to face South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa next Saturday at 1 p.m. ET in a game that will air on ABC. The Bulls have gotten off to a rough start to the season, which means the Gators should be able to use the game to work out more kinks ahead of its SEC schedule, which begins the next week with their toughest game of the season as No. 1 Alabama visits The Swamp to face what may be a top-10 Florida team.

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