Florida Football Friday Final: Gators must overcome road woes, stand tall before bye week

By OnlyGators.com Staff
October 13, 2023
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators must overcome road woes, stand tall before bye week

Image Credit: GatorsFB on Twitter

On the road the Florida Gators go once again this Saturday as they visit Columbia, South Carolina, seeking to seriously change their fortunes away from home. While the Gators dominated the South Carolina Gamecocks, that showdown came in the friendly confines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and as we’ve seen through 1.5 seasons under head coach Billy Napier, Florida has simply not been the same team outside of The Swamp.

The Gators are 1-7 away from home under Napier, losing three straight such games by double digits. Florida has allowed 24+ points in all eight of those contests and been outscored 267-182, an average of 10.6 points per game.

Florida is 10-2 at home in that same span, with seven of 10 victories coming by double digits. The Gators have only allowed 24+ points in five of those 12 games while outscoring opponents 404-233, an average of 14.3 points per game.

That’s nearly a 25-point-per-game scoring differential based purely on location. Granted, Florida’s home schedule includes non-Power Five opponents that inflate those numbers on Florida Field, but the road statistics stand alone as problematic.

Though he was speaking more to the procedural issues the Gators have encountered on the road – a significant part of the reason for those struggles — Napier’s words apply to the team’s struggles away from home in totality.

“It is definitely part of our past, and we have to make sure we’re on top of our game so it isn’t in our future,” he said.

To that end, Florida tweaked its weekly schedule ahead of the South Carolina game. The Gators arrived in Columbia earlier than usual, practiced differently Thursday and placed an additional emphasis on rest – specifically Wednesday night. These were all normal-process quality control adjustments, but Napier has been pleased at the accountability taken by the staff and players, noting most of the issues to this point have been mental.

“Bottom line: When the ball’s spotted, we kick it off. You got to be ready to mix it up,” he said. “If you’ve done a good job preparing all week, you’re mentally prepared, you can communicate eat a high level, you can play fast, you can anticipate. And then, physically, you gotta have a sharp sword. You gotta be ready to go. That axe can’t be dull.”

Certainly an appropriate way to describe how Florida has frequently come out of the tunnel in road games: dull. Napier has spent the week trying to reset the Gators’ heads by keeping them free from distractions. He pointed out those can be caused by both failure and success, though they are usually worse coming out of successful games, such as Florida’s relative domination of Vanderbilt last week. The goal this week has been to ensure no one overlooks what have been clear, long-term problems away from home.

“This is an area — on our team — where we need to accept the challenge and take the next step by playing well, winning the came on the road,” Napier said. “… Our job is to connect with people and produce results. … We want to have an aggressive mindset this week.”

If the Gators ultimately prevail Saturday, they will sit 5-2 on the season and one game away from bowl eligibility. Despite which games were wins and which were losses, Florida would be back on track toward its overall goal of improvement through seven weeks. A loss would keep it on the teeter.

Freshmen making an impact

All season, we have been sharing an interesting data point in our Gators Game Day Preview stories. Florida entered the 2023 season with 35 new scholarship players on the roster, tied for 12th most in the FBS. It also had just 115 combined starts returning, second-fewest in the nation. UF’s 69 returning players were also the ninth-fewest in the nation.

The tail end of that is a statistic that made the rounds this week: The Gators have played more freshman in every game this season (11) than any other team in the country.

There are a variety of reasons that is the case, including Florida not being as successful in the transfer portal as many of its rivals and Napier believing that his first-year players are simply more talented with higher ceilings than many of the established veterans on the roster. The former point is arguably an indictment on the staff’s process, but the latter is a massive positive.

Nowhere else have freshmen contributions been more apparent than the secondary as Jordan Castell and Bryce Thornton have emerged as starters (though sophomore Miguel Mitchell splits a lot of snaps with Thornton). Napier this week said the frosh have been impressive given they just joined the program in January with Castell having major-high school experience and Thornton spending his career working in the defensive backfield. “Nowadays, you gotta be able to get a young player ready to go,” he said.

Tight end Arlis Boardingham broke out last week with seven receptions for a team- and career-high 99 yards receiving plus two touchdowns. Florida has been waiting for player at his position to emerge following the departure of Kyle Pitts, and Boardingham’s unique skillset has proven valuable. Napier praised him for being able to run a full route tree but cautioned he’s still learning the fundamentals of the position.

Wide receiver Eugene Wilson III appears to be poised for a breakout performance. Though he’s flashed, an injury a few weeks ago plus situational game planning has kept his potential in a bit of a box.

Notes & quotes

  • Napier on Wednesday was by far the most bullish he’s been in three weeks discussing the attitude, energy and effort of the Gators during practice.
  • Napier is not concerned about attrition after the season.
  • When recruiting high school players, Napier is seeking prospects who can not only play right away but are looking to stick with their first program to create stability on the roster.
  • Napier praised junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. for his leadership and positive attitude, saying he will play in the NFL and be a great representative of Florida.
  • Sophomore RB Trevor Etienne is back at full speed and had a great week of practice.
  • Redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun is out again with a lower-body injury. He is following a specific rehabilitation plan to ensure he’s 100% the next time he returns. It appears as if that will be Georgia week with Florida using the bye week to help ensure he’s ready to go.
  • Napier praised South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer’s special teams unit saying, “They invest time in that area.” No follow up was asked comparing the units, but it would have been interesting to hear Napier contrast the Gamecocks’ special teams from those of the Gators.
  • Napier said this week that it’s easy to get halfway or three-quarters of the way up a mountain, but the air gets thinner and the temperature drops as you come closer to the summit, making the effort more difficult. That’s where Florida is at this juncture. “It’s important to keep perspective here relative to what goes into this challenge.”

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