Florida vs. Vanderbilt score, takeaways: Gators waste momentum in embarrassing, self-inflicted road loss

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 19, 2022
Florida vs. Vanderbilt score, takeaways: Gators waste momentum in embarrassing, self-inflicted road loss

Image Credit: UAA

It was not the early kickoff (11 a.m. local time) or the cold weather (45 degrees) or the personnel losses (multiple players sidelined) or anything else external. The Florida Gators have no one to blame but themselves for an embarrassing 31-24 loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee.

Florida saw its 15-game road winning streak over Vanderbilt, which began 30 years ago in 1992, snapped on the back of a self-inflicted loss caused by lacking discipline, execution and game planning. Penalties extended Commodores drives that would have otherwise ended. Unforced turnovers gave the hosts extra scoring opportunities of which they took advantage. A mind-boggling game plan with confusing calls in key situations provided the Gators with little chance to do what they do best: overpower their opponent.

“We capitalized on mistakes today. I’m going to be honest. It wasn’t obviously a perfectly clean game, but we capitalized on mistakes, played Vanderbilt football and made plays when we needed to make them,” ‘Dores head coach Clark Lea admitted after the game.

The end result was the wind being sucked out of Florida’s sails coming out of consecutive dominant victories over Texas A&M and South Carolina. The Gators had hoped to win their final four games of the season to end Year 1 under head coach Billy Napier on a high note. Instead, they will enter their regular-season finale moving in the opposite direction of their in-state rival with all the positive feelings recently engendered having been wasted.

What exactly went wrong as Florida visited Vanderbilt? Let’s take a look.

Self-inflicted errors at every turn

It’s important clarify that the ‘Dores did everything in their power to win the game. As Lea said, Vanderbilt capitalized on mistakes, made few of its own and executed when necessary to pull off a stunning upset as a 14-point underdog. So, let’s be sure not to take anything away from VU’s effort.

However, the reason Vanderbilt was in position to pull off the upset was Florida shooting itself in the foot time and again. Worst of all, the miscues occurred in all three phases of the game (offense, defense, special teams) and stretched across all four quarters. Given the seven-point margin of defeat, these particular incidents stand out as the most notable transgressions.

1. Muffed punt touchdown: Trailing 7-6 in the second quarter, Florida was set to get the ball deep in its territory after a defensive stop. However, sophomore cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. did not set his feet at the 10-yard line while back to return the punt. Instead, he attempted to catch the ball over his head with the sun in his eyes, muffing it into the end zone where Vanderbilt recovered for a special teams touchdown. “Nobody wants to do their job more for the team than Jason Marshall,” Napier said. “He made an in-game decision there — he made a mistake in the game, much like a lot of our players made mistakes.”

Marshall, a third-stringer at that depth chart spot, was only in the game at punt returner because sophomore Xzavier Henderson (out) and junior Ricky Pearsall (injured in the first quarter) – both ahead of him — were unavailable. Making matters worse, freshman safety Kamari Wilson dropped a would-have-been pick six (1b) earlier in the series. That opened the door for the punt and special teams miscue with the ‘Dores taking a 14-6 lead entering the half.

2. Drives extended into scoring opportunities: Twice on Saturday, the Gators gave their hosts new life while making defensive stops that would have otherwise put the visitors in advantageous situations. And in both cases, Vanderbilt took advantage by putting points on the board and increasing its lead.

Leading 3-0 late in the second quarter, Florida got a defensive stop on third-and-8 at the VU 47 … until sophomore defensive end Princely Umanmielen shoved a player for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. On the next series of the same drive, the Gators got a third-and-12 stop at the UF 25 … until sophomore linebacker Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr. was called for facemask on a would-be sack. Rather than hold Vanderbilt to a field goal, Florida gave up a passing touchdown on third-and-goal at the 10, the lone throw tried by the ‘Dores on the 12-play, 81-yard drive.

That was not the only time the Gators defense failed to get off the field despite actually making stops. Trailing 14-12 in the third quarter, Florida appeared to get a stop on third-and-14 at the Vanderbilt 30 … until senior LB Amari Burney was called for holding. While UF still had an opportunity to make another stop with 70 yards left on the field, it failed to do so. Vandy went up 21-12 after completing a 12-play, 66-yard touchdown drive, and the ‘Dores soon went up two full scores when …

3. Touchdown off terrible turnover: Down 21-12 in the third quarter, Florida still had plenty of time to mount a comeback, though Vanderbilt was starting to get pressure on sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson. Rattled in the pocket, Richardson tried to force a third-down throw to a falling wide receiver where the reward (short of a first down) was clearly not worth the risk. And it was indeed risky as Richardson’s pass was not only poor, it somehow avoided the ground and bounced off the receiver’s arms into the hands of a waiting defensive back. The ‘Dores took over at the UF 28 and found the end zone one play later, scoring 14 points in quick fashion. The Gators were trailing by two but suddenly found themselves down 16 entering the final period. Almost entirely because of their own errors.

These were not the only major mistakes made by Florida in the game; however, it’s clear that each set of miscues directly resulted in the four touchdowns Vanderbilt scored Saturday afternoon. Here’s everything else that went wrong from a discipline and execution standpoint in the game.

  • Red zone woes: Entering ranked 123rd out of 131 FBS teams in red-zone efficiency, the Gators showed why on their first offensive series. Despite some huge conversions on the drive by Richardson, he made a bad read on first-and-10 from the VU 11 (could have walked in a touchdown himself instead of handing off for no gain), and sophomore running back Montrell Johnson Jr. dropped a walk-in score on third down.
  • Case of the drops: Florida dropped three passes on the first two drives. Redshirt freshman WR Daejon Reynolds also dropped a wide-open fourth-quarter touchdown, though he did atone with a scoring grab soon after.
  • More untimely penalties: Johnson had a 27-yard run negated by illegal formation in the second quarter. He saw another first-down run wiped out by an unnecessary roughness penalty on redshirt sophomore Kingsley Eguakun later in the period. (Eguakun also snapped a ball early on the first drive of the game for a massive loss.) “Some of the penalties are technical, but we lost our composure at times today [as well],” Napier said.
  • Kicking problems: Redshirt freshman kicker Adam Mihalek missed his first extra point of the season in the fourth quarter and routinely failed to create touchbacks that led to significant Vanderbilt returns on kickoffs. He did make a 44-yard field goal, though.
  • Hail Mary? Referees inexplicably stopped the clock after an in-bounds catch as Florida attempted to tie the game in the waining seconds. Richardson wound up with what was basically an untimed final play, but he threw the ensuing Hail Mary (which again, should not have even gone off) through the uprights rather than anywhere near a receiver in the end zone. It would have been an unlikely and unfair score, but nevertheless, no chance was given to the playmakers.

“No question, a ton of missed opportunities out there today,” Napier said after the final whistle. “This is a simple game. Our group knows what winning football looks like. We did not play winning football today. You think about the opportunities and mistakes within the game. A couple red-zone opportunities; they made us kick field goals. We had six [points] to show for some of that momentum we had early. Two turnovers in the game that led to 14 points, and we had way too many penalties in the game — and a handful of penalties that resulted in first downs on third down. …

“It was a lot of Florida beating Florida out there. It’s my job to get the players ready to play; we did not do that today.”

Absences certainly did not help

Though the Gators got redshirt junior WR Justin Shorter back after a one-game absence, they entered short-handed at the wideout position with sophomore starters Xzavier Henderson and Ja’Quavion Fraziars both sidelined. Making matters worse, junior Ricky Pearsall — Richardson’s security blanket in the slot – suffered a lower-body injury on the opening drive when he slipped on the turf field while trying to change direction on a third-down catch. He never returned, leaving holes at both receiver and punt returner. (Redshirt freshman WR Marcus Burke was also injured in the contest.)

Sophomore S Rashad Torrence II suffered a lower-body injury in the first half, though it was tough to determine what exactly happened as he fell face-first while making a sideline tackle. He similarly did not return. “That has nothing to do with what happened today,” said Napier regarding the injuries.

Florida also saw redshirt senior LB Ventrell Miller removed from the game after being assessed a targeting penalty in the second half. Miller, who forced a fumble recovered by redshirt sophomore CB Jaydon Hill in the game, has clearly been the Gators’ defensive leader this season, but Torrence was specifically named this week as one of the others taking on more responsibility. Miller will likely be out the first half of the regular-season finale against Florida State per NCAA rules.

Offensive offense, play calling, game planning

Napier has taken his share of deserved criticism throughout the season in these areas, and if any game was a paradigm of Florida’s problems on offense, it was this one. Despite a run-heavy approach working wonders the last two weeks, the nation’s No. 11 rushing team (No. 2 in yards per carry) went with a passing approach. Perhaps the idea was to give Richardson an opportunity to stretch his passing muscles, but the Gators completely and inexplicably went away from the baseline of what allowed their offense to be dominant at times. Not only did the running backs barely touch the ball, Richardson chose not to run himself.

An approach that led to a 38-6 win over South Carolina last week was abandoned. Richardson never called his number on run-pass option plays. He did not get a called run from the sideline until the first two plays of the second half. But just as it looked like Florida understood the need to use Richardson’s legs, he did not run the ball again outside of one scramble on a late broken play. Whether Napier’s directive and play calling or Richardson’s own decisions – most likely a combination of both – it was astounding to see the Gators not simply go with what has worked so frequently.

Richardson did complete 25 of 42 passes for 400 yards with three touchdowns and an interception (his first since Oct. 8 vs. Missouri). In doing so, he made some legitimately spectacular plays, including a 27-yard conversion on third-and-25 to Pearsall, a picturesque 31-yard pass to Reynolds on fourth-and-7, a perfect 74-yard touchdown to Reynolds to open the fourth quarter and a 16-yard strike to Reynolds on fourth-and-10 later in the period. “Anthony did a lot of good things out there today,” Napier said. “There’s a handful of plays he’d like to have back — much like every week.”

Reynolds starred with 165 yards and two scores despite his aforementioned TD drop. “Dae Dae had a phenomenal summer. He had a phenomenal training camp. He had some good players in front of him,” Napier said. “… Today, when given an opportunity, he stepped up and made some plays. … [He] was ready for his opportunity today.”

AR actually put together a relatively strong passing performance, though he did sail two passes that were also factors in Florida’s loss. Still, for that effort to come at the expense of the running game was shocking until late in the second half. Johnson gained just 32 yards on 11 carries, while freshman Trevor Etienne got 9 yards on four rushes with a 26-yard gain in the passing game. Richardson’s four carries – two scrambles, two called runs – went for just 25 yards total with 15 on the last scramble.

The game plan was inexplicable. The inability or unwillingness to adjust in the second half was confounding. Coupled with some mind-numbing calls – inside runs on key third downs, for example – more disastrous clock management and inconsistent play across the offense, questions that have been raised in this space are being resurrected.

Napier’s offense, co-coordinated by a career offensive line coach in Rob Sale, lacks imagination and creativity. That makes it predictable. It’s an offense from 10 years ago that needs to be executed by players the caliber of those on the Alabama and Georgia rosters. Even then, it would exist behind modern times. Napier could recruit top-five classes every year for Florida, but it won’t matter if the scheme and play calling does not improve.

And that is why Napier badly needs a real offensive coordinator to handle play calling duties. As stated previously, it is far too much for Napier to manage the game, call the offensive plays and serve as quarterback coach during a game. Legendary coaches have learned this lesson previously.

Others like future Hall of Famer Nick Saban have understood that offensive modernization is a priority in this era of college football. Look at how Bama’s fortunes changed when he brought in Lane Kiffin, or when LSU’s Ed Orgeron moved beyond his dated offense by hiring Joe Brady. Good coaches make necessary changes to their process, even when it’s uncomfortable (which it certainly was for Saban).

Napier has already proven he is the right person to lead the program from a culture and recruiting standpoint. It’s nearly impossible to believe otherwise. But coaching is not just about getting the right guys in the program and ensuring there’s a brotherhood amongst players and staff. It’s about game management, decision making and play calling. And in those areas, Napier has proven he has a long, long way to go. The best way he can help himself is by hiring someone else.

Odds and ends

The only team other than Vanderbilt to hold Florida without a first-half touchdown this season was No. 1 Georgia, which boasts the nation’s second-ranked scoring defense … the Gators were 0 for 2 on 2-point conversion attempts, falling to 2 for 6 on the season … the ‘Dores started 0 of 2 on third down but converted 7 of 11 to end the game … Florida converted 3 of 4 fourth downs but just 4 of 15 third downs … UF totaled more yards (445-283) and averaged more yards per play (7.0-4.6) yet still lost …

Florida fell to Vanderbilt in Nashville for the first time since 1988, snapping a 15-game winning streak … the Gators are now 43-11-2 all-time against the Commodores with victories in 31 of the last 33 meetings … UF’s loss to VU was its first overall since 2013 … Florida is 0-4 this season when rushing for fewer than 150+ yards … UF is 1-5 when tied or trailing after the third quarter … the Gators defense did not allow a point through seven quarters until the ‘Dores scored … Florida is now 32-10 against unranked opponents since 2018 … the Gators have scored in 434 consecutive games, an ongoing NCAA record

What it means

Florida’s momentum is gone. The corner that looked to be turned coming out of the bye week (despite the loss to Georgia) was apparently just the first of four right turns. The Gators failed on the field in all three phases, on the sideline and beyond the turf in terms of game preparation. They lost to a Vanderbilt team that had not won an SEC home game since 2019 nor consecutive SEC games anywhere since 2018.

What’s perhaps most frustrating is that Florida achieved plenty in the game, all of which got overlooked. Miller and Marshall had a couple great turnovers in key spots. Richardson struggled on occasion but made some of his best throws of the season. The defense in totality got a number of stops that were all negated; the early ones in particular could have started the game on a completely different foot. None of it matters. The mistakes completely outweighed the achievements, and the Gators completely reverted back to the team that lost to Kentucky and struggled against South Florida.

Florida has now lost to Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the same season for the first time since 1974. It’s the first time UF has ever fallen to those teams plus Georgia and Tennessee in the same campaign, though that’s mostly because a number of seasons did not include games against all four teams before the 1980s.

What’s next?

Making matters worse, Florida has a much tougher test than originally expected ahead as it prepares for a Friday (ugh) kickoff at Florida State to end the regular season. The Gators are already bowl eligible, so that’s not a concern, but they now face a Seminoles team that has won four straight games (Georgia Tech, Miami, Syracuse, Louisiana) by an average of 33.5 points. FSU has scored at least 38 points and not allowed more than 17 in all four contests. In other words, the in-state rivals are headed in completely different directions entering Napier’s final chance at a rivalry win this season. Florida enters having won three straight in the series.

“There’s opportunity for this group to respond the right way,” Napier said. “Ultimately, when you go through challenges, yo make mistakes, it gives you an opportunity to respond, to show your character. This is going to be an opportunity for this group to stick together.”

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