Florida vs. McNeese score, takeaways: Gators get right with FCS beatdown, plus a few questions

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 10, 2023
Florida vs. McNeese score, takeaways: Gators get right with FCS beatdown, plus a few questions

Image Credit: UAA

There was perhaps no better opponent for the Florida Gators to face in Week 2 coming off a disastrous performance to kick off the 2023 college football season, and head coach Billy Napier’s team took advantage of the opportunity. Florida routed the McNeese Cowboys 49-7 on Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, with the only question after the first quarter being the Gators’ eventual margin of victory.

Florida scored touchdowns on its first seven possessions of a game for the first time since 2008 and ran up and down the field on a McNeese team that was simply outmatched in the trenches. In doing so, the Gators picked up an impressive 42-point victory that took some stink off their Week 1 performance against Utah, though Saturday’s successes must still be viewed in the proper context.

Still, Florida got back to basics by running on 69% of their offensive plays (51 of 74) and outgaining McNeese by 448 yards. The Gators were perfect on third down with their starters in the game, went 6 for 6 in the red zone and racked up 33 first downs with long drives meant to get both teams out of the game relatively unscathed.

Let’s take a look at what went down Saturday night in The Swamp as Florida broke a four-game losing streak with its first win of the 2023 season.

They just … kept … running

The Gators ran early and often and late and even more frequently. Florida toted the rock 51 yards for 327 yards and six touchdowns with junior Montrell Johnson Jr. (15 carries, 119 yards, two TDs), sophomore Trevor Etienne (11 carries, 84 yards, TD), freshman Treyaun Webb (14 carries, 71 yards, two TDs) and even redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz (TD) contributing. Florida got whatever it wanted on the ground with an Etienne 22-yard run and 18-yard Wildcat fake handoff by freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III emerging as the standout plays.

It was such a dominant rushing performance that it became fair to wonder why the Gators did not throw the ball more. Not because they needed to air it out against the Cowboys but rather to grow Mertz’s confidence in the passing game and get redshirt freshman Max Brown real-game experience throwing the ball.

Mertz finished 14 of 17 for 193 yards with a 50-yard hookup to senior WR Ricky Pearsall serving as the play of the game. Two of his three incompletions were drops, but less than a handful of his passes were down the field; Mertz frequently checked down for chunk gains near the line of scrimmage. McNeese is the exact type of opponent where you can open up the offense and try to find some rhythm for the rest of the season.

Brown finished just 2 of 3 for 24 yards, leading one touchdown drive. Graduate walk-on Micah Leon (2 of 3, 16 yards) also saw action, exchanging drives with Brown in the fourth quarter.

But with redshirt sophomore Jack Miller III sidelined, Florida up substantially in the second half and Mertz one play away from being knocked out of action at any time this season, not using this as an opportunity to get Brown extensive work was a confusing decision.

“Max did some really good things in that possession when we moved the ball down there and scored,” Napier said. “He had a couple naked throws for completions. It’s definitely beneficial. Ultimately, those guys take a million reps in practice. That’s a small sample size compared to what we see each week. There’s no doubt we need those guys to continue to develop.”

Early scares, late confidence

The seemingly endless miscues that followed the Gators from the 2022 season into last week’s game appeared on the verge of continuing in the first quarter.

Florida ran right down the field for a touchdown on their opening possession only for a botched snap on the extra point — another especial teams miscue — to leave it up 6-0. On the ensuing McNeese possession, the defense gave up a 28-yard run and junior EDGE Princely Umanmielen jumped offsides on third-and-7. That gave the Cowboys a third-and-2 that Umanmielen stopped cold, though McNeese did convert a fourth-and-3 with the defense caught off guard on a tempo play. Yikes.

Except … the mistakes basically ended there. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams destroyed McNeese’s quarterback a couple plays later with a sack for a 12-yard loss in a play that seemed to almost exorcise the demons that followed the Gators into the game. It was smooth sailing from then onward.

That’s not to say there were no further mistakes, but those that followed were mostly minimal. Florida committed a heat-of-the-moment personal foul after its second touchdown. There was an offensive pass interference on a failed 2-point conversion in the second quarter. And finally, redshirt senior walk-on RB Eddie Battle fumbled inside the 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter, a turnover that resulted in McNeese’s only score of the game.

Notes from the game

  • Florida’s seven straight touchdown drives each lasted at least five plays and at least 62 yards. The Gators had an impressive 11-play, 99-yard drive on their second possession.
  • Webb scored his first career touchdown.
  • Florida scored four rushing touchdowns in one half for the first time since Sept. 5, 2009 vs. Charleston Southern.
  • Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jamari Lyons plowed through the middle of the Cowboys’ offense for a safety in the third quarter, the first since last season’s Kentucky game and just Florida’s second since 2018.
  • The Gators did not force a turnover, which was disappointing, though McNeese only threw the ball 14 times — and most passes came with second- and third-string defenders in the game.
  • Florida only committed 20 yards of penalties in the game.
  • The Gators defense gave up just 1.8 yards per rush and 4.7 yards per pass. The 112 total yards allowed marked the best defensive performance since Sept. 17, 2016 vs. North Texas.
  • Florida’s 42-point margin of victory was its biggest in two years.

Odds and ends

Florida has won 34 straight home openers since 1989, which remains the NCAA’s active record … the Gators are 23-1 against FCS opponents since 1981 … Florida is 6-0 under Napier when leading after the third quarter and 7-2 when rushing for at least 150 yards … UF is 18-5 against nonconference opponents since 2018 and broke a string of three straight losses … Florida has scored in 438 consecutive games, an NCAA record

What it means

Not too much. McNeese was the definition of a cupcake opponent, but despite that fact, Florida still played a mostly clean game void of the back-breaking mistakes that came last week and so frequently last season. This should be a building-block game for the Gators, and perhaps if they played McNeese last week and Utah this week, they would have been better for it.

Ending a four-game losing streak and feeling good about yourself going into a massive rivalry game is important, and Florida can absolutely take that from Saturday night. The Gators can also refine some of what they put on display over the next week.

Perhaps most important of all, Florida was able to rest about a dozen players (who missed the game), and the Gators appeared to come out of the contest relatively unscathed.

“One of the things about college football — and I would say the University of Florida in particular — is it gets noisy sometimes, good and bad, If it’s bad, then it gets loud, and if it’s good, it gets loud,” Napier said. “The ability to stay consistent in your approach and evaluate things objectively is important, not only for myself and our staff but also for the players. We’ve got some maturity in that locker room that helped us do that.”

What’s next?

Revenge should be heavily on Florida’s mind as it hosts Tennessee for the third of four straight night games on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. in The Swamp. The Gators have won nine straight against the Volunteers on Florida Field and five of the last six rivalry matchups overall.

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