Florida vs. Charlotte takeaways: Gators disappoint on field, Billy Napier frustrates after narrow win

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 24, 2023
Florida vs. Charlotte takeaways: Gators disappoint on field, Billy Napier frustrates after narrow win

Image Credit: UAA

What should have been an easy victory for the No. 25 Florida Gators going away Saturday night was instead far too close for comfort as the hosts limped their way to a 22-7 win over the Charlotte 49ers at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. Fueled by five field goals from sophomore kicker Trey Smack, the Gators only scored one touchdown against the lowly 49ers, the fewest for Florida in a game against a non-Power Five opponent since 1988.

The Gators went 1 of 9 on third down and stalled four times in the red zone. They continued to take untimely penalties and made multiple special teams mistakes throughout the entire game.

Smack, making his first start as the placekicker, was exceptional outscoring Charlotte on his own. That created its own questions. Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz completed 20 of 23 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown, continuing his efficient play. However, he was seriously marginalized in the second half by the offensive play calling.

At the end of the night, Florida won its third straight game to create its first winning streak since late in the 2020 season. The Gators also won their 14th straight nonconference home game in The Swamp. Unfortunately, it’s tough to say the positives outweighed the negatives when there were so many questions coming out of the contest.

“It’s hard to win, and certainly we had to grind that one out,” head coach Billy Napier said after the game. “We all know the issues: red zone, forced to kick five field goals down there tonight. … When we look back at that, it’s going to be very technical, the game in general. There will be things that are very correctable just based on what I observed out there, whether it’s a missed block or getting beat in pass protection. It was all very correctable.”

Let’s take a look at what went right — but mostly what went wrong — in Florida’s win over Charlotte.

Smack that

Putting on a field goal-kicking performance not seen by the Gators in six years, Smack was tremendous leading the team with 15 points. He made a stunning 54-yard kick midway through the second quarter as his lone field goal that did not come from within the red zone (27 yards, 23 yards, 36 yards, 23 yards).

This performance brought up a simple question that many had already been asking since midway through the 2022 season: Why the hell was Smack not already the starting placekicker?

Redshirt sophomore Adam Mihalek, who won the job in 2022 and maintained it at the start of 2023, only hit 14 of 21 field goals a year ago before going 1 of 3 to start this season. He was particularly poor from beyond 45 yards, and his inconsistency put Napier in far too many difficult positions. Then again, it was seemingly Napier putting himself in those positions by playing Mihalek over Smack for so long.

Same mistake, different season

Speaking of starting the wrong player at a key position, Napier yet again finds himself in a quandary of his own doing at running back. Florida has a tremendous one-two punch of junior Montrell Johnson Jr. and sophomore Trevor Etienne in the back field. They complement each other extremely well and could be one of the nation’s top rushing duos if deployed correctly. The problem is that Napier is steadfastly continuing to start Johnson and run him far more frequently than Etienne despite the latter continuously proving to be the better back.

This was a problem Napier had to work through in 2022 as well. He steadfastly continued to start Nay’Quan Wright even as Johnson and Etienne were blatantly outplaying Wright on a weekly basis. Now in 2023, Etienne is proving to be the far more capable rusher, yet Napier stubbornly refuses to make him the Gators’ primary ballcarrier.

The difference in talent has been on display all season but was immensely notable Saturday night. Johnson (3.9 yards per carry) continued to cut outside while missing open rushing lanes inside, while Etienne (6.0 yards per carry) patiently waited for holes to open and blasted both up the middle and off tackle with ease. And yet, Johnson got twice as many carries as Etienne (16-8) with the latter only having four rushes through the first three quarters. This despite Etienne also dominating last week at Tennessee (172 yards, 7.5 yards per carry) while Johnson (23 yards, 1.9 yards per carry) struggled.

It’s decisions like these that lead talented players to consider the transfer portal.

Changing the game for the worse

A couple games might be a coincidence, a few games might be a trend, but four games is an abject failure. (And really, it’s more than that dating back to last season.) Florida is putting one of the nation’s worst special teams units on the field weekly and seemingly doing nothing in practice to improve a mistake-prone, ill-equipped unit that is one of a nary few in the FBS (for good reason) without an on-field coordinator.

Twice on Saturday alone, the Gators lined up with only 10 players on the field — first on a missed Niners field goal in the third quarter and then later on a punt return. In both cases, the 11th man on the field ran off before the snap, presumably thinking there might be 12 men on the field.

“We didn’t have 10 out there for the field goal. We didn’t get the returner on right there in the middle of the field, and ultimately because of the sack, that’s where the miscue was made. We’re OK with that,” Napier said. “We’re OK with the returner not being on the field in that situation. It’s fourth down and a mile. Look, it’s out there where we think we’re going to be in field goal range and then all of a sudden the punter is out there. Aware of that and very unique situation in the game, and we’re OK with that.”


In the first quarter, senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall misjudged the game’s opening punt with a holding penalty added on the return. Later in the same period, a 47-yard Pearsall punt return was negated by a block in the back penalty.

Perhaps worse than the errors themselves was Napier’s unwillingness to take accountability for Florida’s special teams woes after the game. (To his credit, he usually does not shy away from blame, which made this even more odd.) Again, the Gators are one of just a handful of teams nationally without an on-field special teams coordinator. Rather, Napier has a GameChanger coordinator in an off-field role with his on-field assistants splitting special teams responsibilities.

This did not work in 2022, and it’s making Florida look like a junior varsity team in the “third phase of the game” in 2023. The Gators have long had top-tier special teams units that have helped fuel victorious seasons. The only way this unit is changing the game these days is for the worse. Napier should be mandated by athletic director Scott Stricklin to make the necessary change to his coaching staff in 2024.

Confounding offensive game plan

No cute title for this one. The frustration is too severe.

Florida went 1 of 9 on third down against Charlotte, a team that last season played in Conference USA and entered Saturday night’s contest 1-2 on the season having given up 41 points and 568 total yards to Georgia State just last week. Its lone conversion was on a direct snap to Johnson for a single yard.

UF is now 1 of 17 on third down over the last six quarters.

The Gators failed four times in the red zone, settling for field goals each time despite a pair of fourth-and-1 opportunities — one each in the first and fourth quarter — of which Napier usually takes advantage. They were one of the nation’s worst red zone teams last season, too.

“We talk about red zone touchdowns all the time. We want to be 70% touchdowns in the red area, but we want to be 100% red zone scoring,” he explained. “If you add 20 to that score [touchdowns instead of field goals], I’m probably already taking a shower right now [and not speaking in the press conference]. Y’all would have much less questions, OK? We moved the ball really effectively. We’ve got to score touchdowns when we get it down there.”

Mertz, who was 13 of 15 in the first half for 188 yards, was only allowed to attempt eight passes compared to 21 called runs in the second half. This despite Florida only holding a paltry 16-7 lead after 30 minutes. He completed 7 of those 8 passes — though he did take a couple sacks — again showing he can be trusted with the ball earlier in series.

Napier ran and ran and ran on first and second down, usually with Johnson. This despite the Gators offensive line being down its starting center due to injury and two others starters due to suspension (one for the first game, one for the first half). This despite the 49ers having a porous secondary that Mertz tore apart in the first half.

It was no more apparent than when Florida retrieved the ball at its own 35-yard line with 2:30 left in the first half. With an opportunity double up by scoring before halftime and getting the ball to start the second half, Napier called for a throw behind the line of scrimmage. Then the Gators ran for a short gain, purposely wasted the clock, ran again on third down and punted. Again, the drive started with 2:30 left.

We gave Napier a break last week after perhaps the best schematic half of offensive football that Florida has played during his tenure in the opening 30 minutes against Tennessee. Even in the face of a horrendously conservative second half in that game, it seemed as if Napier had figured out how the Gators needed to play.

And then everything reverted to the norm this week, which allows us to repeat what has been said far too often in this space through the first 17 games of his career in orange and blue: Napier needs to hire a true offensive play caller. He must release the program from his conservative play calling and old-school mindset, which hardly makes sense for a guy who claims “scared money don’t make money.”

Before the 2024 season, the Gators need an offensive play caller and special teams coordinator. There is simply too much evidence that the program is lacking in these areas. Napier has claimed he is able to step back and objectively evaluate himself; that will absolutely be proven untrue if he does not make changes that anyone who watches this program knows need to be made.

“We’re sitting here a little bit disappointed because of red zone issues and a couple sloppy turnovers in the game. Trust me, nobody is more pissed about that than I am,” Napier said.

Game notes

  • Pearsall impressed with six receptions for 104 yards, including a catch-of-the-year contender.
  • Redshirt freshman tight end Arlis Boardingham scored his first career touchdown in the first quarter.
  • Freshman WR Andy Jean saw his first significant action taking a carry for 25 yards and hauling in a pass for 32 yards.
  • Junior starting OL Micah Mazzccua, who was suspended for the first half by the SEC after getting in a fight at the end of the Tennessee game, served a team suspension for the second half and did not play.
  • Sophomore safety Kamari Wilson, Florida’s top signee in the Class of 2022, was left off the depth chart last week and did not join the team at its hotel or in the game Saturday night.
  • With two more turnovers Saturday, the Gators are -3 in turnover margin this season.
  • Florida improved to 50-19-3 against AAC teams and 17-2 in nonconference play since 2018 … the Gators improved to 177-34 in The Swamp since 1990, the second-best home winning percentage in the nation … Florida improved to 7-0 under Napier when leading after the third quarter … the Gators are 34-10 against unranked opponents since 2018 … Florida has scored in 440 consecutive games, an NCAA record

What it means

The Gators once again put together a flat, uninspired performance coming out of a significant victory, just as they did on a couple occasions last season. Florida beat Utah 29-26 in Week 1 only to fall 26-16 to Kentucky in Week 2, then it eviscerated South Carolina 38-6 only to fall 31-24 at Vanderbilt the next week. If the Gators had played a better opponent Saturday, it stands to reason they would have lost the game.

Granted, Napier stated during the week that he was not pleased with Florida’s preparation, and granted, Napier has explained how he is still in the midst of rebuilding the roster and changing the culture … but for there to seemingly not be any significant improvement in Year 2 speaks to a program-wide issue.

On that note …

What’s next?

… the proof will be in the pudding next week when Florida visits a Kentucky program that’s shockingly had UF’s number of late. The Gators have lost two straight and three of the last five meetings with the Wildcats since 2018. UK has not been overly impressive to start the season, but it did blow out Vanderbilt 45-28 on Saturday and boasts NC State transfer QB Devin Leary, who is averaging 214 yards and two touchdowns through four games.

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