Florida vs. USF score, takeaways: No. 18 Gators survive upset bid as Anthony Richardson struggles again

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 18, 2022
Florida vs. USF score, takeaways: No. 18 Gators survive upset bid as Anthony Richardson struggles again
Football

Image Credit: GatorsFB / Twitter

Despite entering as a 23-point favorite who had won both prior meetings with their opponent by that exact margin, the No. 18 Florida Gators struggled mightily against the South Florida Bulls on Saturday night inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. In the end, a botched 48-yard field goal attempt by USF allowed UF to skate by with a 31-28 win to improve to 2-1 on the young season with more questions than answers through three games under head coach Billy Napier.

“We made it hard [on ourselves] tonight,” Napier said. “… We got a win tonight, but we got a lot of things to continue to focus on and improve.”

Florida has now gone 12 quarters — three full games — without throwing a touchdown pass this season as sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson’s struggles continued. Richardson threw two more interceptions on Saturday night to make it four for the season. He has not found the end zone in either of the last two games with his season totals now standing at a paltry 311 yards passing on 52.5% completions with three rushing touchdowns against Utah the only scores to his name.

Despite Richardson’s mistakes and despite its own successes, the Gators defense nearly cost them the game. Florida allowed 286 yards rushing — the most given up since the LSU game last year — and allowed USF to move the ball at will in critical moments. The Bulls converted 10 of 17 attempts on third and fourth downs (6 of nine in the first half), and if it was not for three turnovers and screwed up operations on their final possession, it’s likely an upset would have been pulled off in The Swamp.

The road is going to be far tougher for the Gators than what they already experienced, so let’s take a look at how Florida narrowly avoided what would have been one of the worst defeats in program history.

1. Gainesville, we have a problem: Richardson is simply not getting it done, and there’s theories abound as to why that’s the case. He’s in his own head. That’s certainly possible. Richardson started well enough Saturday showing far better control and touch on his passes in the first quarter … until he threw his first interception at the start of the third quarter. He completed 7 of 9 passes before halftime and just 3 of 9 with two picks in the second half. He’s hiding an injury. That’s certainly possible, too. Though both Richardson and Napier have denied as much, it’s clear Richardson is apprehensive to run and sluggish when he does move; it also appears as if he’s not setting his feet and stepping into his throws, which is causing some of them to sail.

There’s a far worse potential reality, though: Perhaps Richardson just isn’t a good quarterback. It’s far too early to come to that conclusion given he’s only made a handful of starts in his career, but given his two worst performances have come in home games where the pressure is (relatively) minimal, the possibility cannot be ignored. From Fun ‘n’ Gun to the spread option, electric passing offense has been a key to the Gators’ on-field success and national reputation. Through the majority of three games this season, there’s hardly anything fun about what Napier is putting on the field.

Richardson’s first interception was an awful side-arm throw to a receiver nowhere in the vicinity of the ball in the third quarter; USF returned it 37 yards and ultimately scored a touchdown and two-point conversion (on a double pass that fooled the defense) to cut its deficit to 24-21. With Florida at the USF 5 trailing 28-24 in the fourth quarter, Richardson checked out of a run — the Gators had been cramming the ball down the Bulls’ throat on the drive — for a back-shoulder fade to senior wide receiver Justin Shorter. Richardson’s throw was low, short and easily picked off; if the defensive back had not stepped out in the end zone, there would have been a huge return on top of it.

Napier did not fault Richardson for making the check — he credited him with a similar decision earlier that led to Florida’s most explosive play of the game — but instead focused on the poor execution of the throw. Richardson took the blame, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was even given the option in that part of the field given how poorly he’s been throwing — and how superbly the Gators have been running — the ball over the last two weeks. Napier’s play calling was less questionable than last week, but there were hiccups there, too. At least most of the screen passes were gone.

Richardson now has more interceptions (four) than total touchdowns (three rushing) and more tackles (two) than passing touchdowns (zero) through three games.

2. Run the damn ball: Just like last season, the best playmakers on Florida’s roster are its running backs. And just like last season, there’s a strange resistance to utilizing the best players and focusing the game plan around their talents. Sophomore Montrell Johnson Jr. was once again the star taking six carries for 103 yards, including a breakaway 62-yard rushing touchdown (the first play of the second quarter, which Napier credited Richardson for checking into). Freshman Trevor Etienne flashed once again amassing 56 yards and a touchdown on eight carries, while redshirt sophomore Nay’Quan Wright squeaked out 37 yards and a score on six touches.

It’s admirable that Napier wants to share the wealth while keeping his players fresh and healthy, but it’s bordering on insanity to see Wright start each game when he’s the least effective of the three ball carriers and appears to have lost a step from his offseason. Wright has been a good player for the Gators, but the simple truth is that he’s been surpassed by greater talents. Johnson (9.6 yards per carry) and Etienne (7.6) are far more productive with the ball in their hands compared to Wright (4.2). The offense is built for larger rushers to break through holes and accelerate up the field. It has been blatantly obvious through three games, and yet Johnson (25) only has one more carry than Wright (24), who has two more than Etienne (22).

Beyond the distribution is the fact that there are not enough running plays being called. No one is suggesting running 40 times a game, but Johnson and Etienne should be able to split 24-26 carries with Wright getting a handful while also being worked into the passing game as a speedy receiver. If Richardson is not working out — and redshirt freshman QB Jack Miller III (thumb) is not yet available — go with what works. Run the ball, use your best players to do so and keep your defense off the field.

3. The good, the bad and the ugly: Florida’s defense simultaneously nearly won and lost it the game on Saturday night. Its three takeaways were the good. Freshman linebacker Shemar James took advantage of a dropped fumble on the opening drive for a recovery at that UF 41 that led to a 31-yard field goal and the first points of the game. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Jalen Kimber’s 40-yard pick six late in the second half looked to push the Gators ahead substantially, 24-10. (It was the team’s first interception return for a touchdown after a 39-game drought dating back to the 2017 season.) Sophomore safety Tre’Vez Johnson came up in the clutch late in the fourth quarter, turning the tables on the Bulls after they intercepted Richardson with a pick on the next drive, which led to Etienne’s score. Florida converted those three takeaways into 17 of its 31 points in the contest.

The bad? How the Gators played on third and fourth down. UF let USF convert 6 of 9 such attempts in the first half and 10 of 17 in the game. That included a 21-yard run on third-and-18 in the first quarter, another third-and-10 conversion on the ground in the second, a 20-yard pass on third-and-10 during the visitors’ final drive and two fourth-down conversions. Drives on which those failures occurred resulted in 13 points, a total that could have been 16 or 20 had the Bulls not botched a third-down snap and field goal snap on consecutive plays to cost themselves an attempt at overtime.

Oh, and the ugly. Florida’s run defense was atrocious. South Florida ran for 102 yards in the first quarter alone (one drive had rushes of 23, 21, 12 and 10 yards) and 168 yards through the first 19:15 of the contest; that latter total was more than USF had gained in an entire game this season. The Bulls also took 6:21 off the clock as they went 51 yards in 11 plays with the Gators unable to stop them from taking a 28-24 lead in the fourth quarter. USF finished with 286 yards rushing; RB Brian Battie averaged 8.8 yards per carry for 150 yards and a touchdown, while QB Gerry Bohanon picked up one conversion after another for 102 yards rushing and another score.

Also frustrating: Redshirt junior edge Brenton Cox Jr., who was silent all game, somehow snapped on the final drive of the game and began to wreak absolute havoc in the backfield. UF’s defensive backs were playing 5-10 yards off USF’s wide receivers for much of the game, allowing numerous easy tosses for chunk yardage. Florida may have been missing redshirt senior linebacker Ventrell Miller, but the drop off in play from the linebacking corps was astounding to say the least.

4. Odds and ends: Florida improved to 3-0 all-time against South Florida (2-0 in The Swamp) … the Gators have won 14 straight regular-season nonconference games since 2018 … UF improved to 171-33 in The Swamp since 1990, the second-best home winning percentage (.838) in the nation across that span … the Gators are now 29-8 against unranked opponents since 2018 … Florida has scored in 426 games, an NCAA record … the first punt Saturday for either team came with 8:46 left in the third quarter

5. What it means: The Gators are not a good football team. Not by a long shot. As written last week, Florida badly needs talent and experience on both sides of the ball. Napier must figure out how to simplify this offense and focus on the running game, and if these struggles continue, he must seriously consider hiring a real offensive coordinator ahead of Year 2. While it is still nowhere near time to worry about Napier and Richardson long-term, raising legitimate questions is completely fair. Last week, we noted that far better teams had lost to far worse opponents than Kentucky. This week, Florida nearly fell to a South Florida team that got routed 50-21 by BYU in Week 1 and only has five wins across the last two-plus seasons; those came against The Citadel, Florida A&M, Temple and Howard, true bottom-of-the-barrel programs. The Gators avoided one of the worst losses in program history, but it was still one of the team’s worst performances in years, and that’s saying something because there’s been plenty of poor efforts over the last three regimes.

6. What’s next? Pain, possibly. Florida will hit the road to face Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Napier’s first road game and UF’s third game against a top 25 opponents just four weeks into the season. While the Gators have won five straight and 16 of the last 17 over the Volunteers (including by double digits each of the last four seasons), Tennessee appears on the come up while Florida is trying to find its footing under a new coach.

7. Former Gators react:

https://twitter.com/johnnytownsend1/status/1571332458443935751

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