Florida vs. Florida State score, takeaways: Gators blow another potential top-10 upset to end season

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 26, 2023
Florida vs. Florida State score, takeaways: Gators blow another potential top-10 upset to end season

Image Credit: UAA

You’ve seen it all before. Well, most of it at least. Mixing undisciplined mistakes, horrendous offensive line play, missed tackles, inane play calling decisions and questionable game management, the Florida Gators on Saturday night snatched defeat from the jaws of victory dropping their second straight winnable game against a top-10 opponent.

Florida ultimately fell 24-15 to the No. 5 Florida State Seminoles, losing its fifth straight game to end the season (though three did come against top 10 teams). Worse was that the Gators led 12-0 and had Ben Hill Griffin Stadium rocking after a safety only to be outscored 24-3 after a couple head-scratching decisions by both coach and player.

There’s no question that head coach Billy Napier again had Florida fully motivated – just as he did the last two weeks against LSU and Missouri. Still, when push came to shove with bowl eligibility and an opportunity to crush their rivals on the line, the Gators self-destructed in all three phases of the game.

Let’s take a look at what once again went wrong for Florida as its season ended with a thud falling to FSU in Gainesville, Florida.

Turned on a dime

The Swamp was absolutely rocking, perhaps as loud or louder than it had been in years. The Gators led 12-0 late in the second quarter after freshman cornerback Sharif Denson registered a huge tackle for loss before juniors linebacker Derek Wingo and EDGE Princely Umanmielen combined for an end-zone sack of Seminoles quarterback Tate Rodemaker for a safety.

Florida was not only playing better defense than it had all season, it had just registered a rare defensive scoring play and turnover. Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne brought back the ensuing punt for 29 yards, and it looked like the Gators were about to add at least another field goal before the half, taking a minimum two-score lead at home against the No. 5 team in the nation.

And then everything fell apart.

Just as he has all season, Napier proved he has no feel for offense play calling by reaching into his bag of tricks at the most inopportune time. On the first play from scrimmage, he called a double reverse flea flicker. Predictably, redshirt freshman quarterback Max Brown was flustered by a ferocious Florida State pass rush, throwing the ball away and getting called for intentional grounding, a 14-yard loss.

There is a wide gulf between aggressiveness and overcomplication. If Napier had called a deep downfield pass, of which the Gators did not attempt all night, that would have been understandable aggression. This was, simply, stupidity. Why? Not only due to Brown’s inexperience but largely because the offensive line was in shambles all night. Florida could not pass block to save its life, yet Napier called a slow-developing trick play.

This despite the fact that his offense had been working perfectly well the entire first half. Etienne and junior RB Montrell Johnson Jr. were gashing FSU on the ground, and Brown looked more than prepared making numerous big-time plays with his arm and legs to extend drives.

The electric atmosphere inside The Swamp was immediately quieted. The Gators still took advantage of their field position punting down to the FSU 6-yard line, but suddenly, the ‘Noles started finding their offense. Just as it looked like Florida might get out of the half unscathed, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamari Lyons was penalized and ejected for spitting — yes, you read that right, spitting — on an FSU player after a play. Moments later, the ‘Noles were in the end zone cutting their deficit to 12-7 at the break.

A better-coached Gators team would have entered halftime up at least two but possibly three scores. Florida had a 184-85 yardage edge (110-13 rushing). It was 5 of 9 on third down (1 of 5 for FSU) and held a 20:42-9:18 time of possession advantage. Yet despite that clear domination, the Gators only led by 5 points at the break.

Napier called a third-and-3 pop pass behind the line of scrimmage taking the ball out of Brown’s hands early as he was gaining momentum; the result was a missed 48-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Trey Smack. Later, as Etienne was gashing FSU in the second quarter, Napier called a third-and-1 quarterback sneak, which was easily stopped due to Florida’s porous offensive line. That led to a converted 35-yard field goal rather than a potential touchdown.

The Gators got the ball back looking to run out the clock only for Johnson to explode on a 52-yard run putting UF in field-goal territory. This one was not on Napier. Junior guard Richie Leonard IV committed a holding on the next play, pushing Florida back with Smack missing a 52-yard field goal that surely would have been an easier kick from 10 yards closer.

All of it was the latest example of Napier losing the middle eight, the 4 minutes on either side of halftime. Good football teams do what they can to score on both sides – or at least score on one side knowing the other team is getting the ball after the break. The Gators got cute and then failed themselves, allowing 14 points to FSU that completely changed the game.

As mentioned, Florida was outscored 24-3 from Napier’s trick play call through the end of the game. The Gators should have led by more at halftime, and they should have been in better position to fend off an expected ‘Noles rally. Instead, despite Florida holding every ounce of momentum that could have existed in The Swamp, it blew the lead and the game.

And worst of all? The second that flea flicker failed, the result felt inevitable.

Failures in all three phases

Early in the season, the Gators offense was either costing it games or making wins far more difficult than they should have been. A large part of that was Napier’s play calling, but there were failures across the board. Late in the season, it has been the defense that completely fell apart, allowing 1,200 combined yards over the last two games entering Saturday night. This as Napier’s play calling marginally improved and redshirt junior QB Graham Mertz found a groove. Special teams, of course, was been a problem in nearly every game, though it had solidified a bit of late.

Saturday night was the culmination of Florida’s shortcomings in a single game. Even beyond Lyons, the Gators committed eight total penalties for 90 yards; they had 86 yards passing comparatively. And there were not false starts or delay of games but mostly defensive failures. There were two pass interference calls (one bullshit), a targeting penalty (legitimate) and offsides. There were also holdings and the spitting call. Special teams committed a 15-yard blocking foul out of bounds. Florida disciplined itself out of the game.

As mentioned, Napier’s play calling is completely worthy of second-guessing, especially when he got conservative late. The offensive line — reminder that this position has two assistants — was rough all game and completely collapsed in the second half. There were, of course, the two missed field goals.

When Napier took over the Gators, beyond the fact that he was going to rebuild the program from the ground up, completely change the staffing and improve recruiting, the entire idea was that Florida would become a more disciplined program that did not make many of the juvenile mistakes fans saw constantly under the prior regime.

Even pushing the spitting aside — but really, how could you? — there were so many dumb mistakes in this game that it’s fair to ask whether the Gators have actually made a wholesale culture change as promised. Week after week this season, Florida always seemed to do something to cost itself momentum or the game. Forget fourth-and-17 last week; it committed targeting on third-and-14 this week.

It just always seems to be something. Whether that something gets pushed out of the Gators’ collective system as the young team matures and Napier gets more of his guys into the fold remains to be seen.

There was some good

  • One presumes Brown did not get downfield passes called because Napier was worried about his accuracy. Despite that hinderance, he exceeded expectations in his first career start. The stat line is not gaudy (9 of 16 for 86 yards and an interception), but it does not accurately represent the way Brown led Florida up and down the field with numerous third-down conversions made by his arm. It was an impressive performance for a redshirt freshman starting his first game — full stop. Case in point: He converted four straight third downs with his arm in the first half.
  • Johnson (107 yards, touchdown) and Etienne (43 yards) were both exceptional running the ball, but they each got injured in the game, which took the wind out of the sails of the Gators offense.
  • The Swamp crowd was outstanding, particularly in the first half where it created multiple delays of game, including one that resulted in an attempted fake punt by FSU not counting. The ensuing punt went just 16 yards, giving Florida a short field.
  • Sophomore cornerback Devin Moore, who missed the last two games with a concussion after being elevated over redshirt junior Jalen Kimber as a starter, had two tremendous pass breakups that helped Florida early. He did commit a late penalty, but it was a small price to pay or his far improved coverage. One wonders, if the Gators had him on the field more this season, whether their fortunes would have been different.
  • Junior nose tackle Desmond Watson had one of his best games of the season with a sack and multiple key run stops.
  • Junior CB Jason Marshall Jr. easily had his best game of the season covering one of the nation’s best wide receivers in Keon Coleman. Though he did nearly let up a touchdown, he was excellent throughout, grabbed a sack and flashed the talent Florida expected but did not see all year.
  • Freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III was again extremely effective early in the first quarter only to be mostly taken out of the game in the latter three periods. This continues to be mind-boggling.

There was more bad

  • Napier wasted two first-half timeouts ahead of kicks, one a field goal when he couldn’t make a decision on fourth-and-short in the red zone, and another on a punt seemingly for no reason trying to feign going for it on the Gators’ side of the field late in the period.
  • Special teams allowed Coleman a 39-yard punt return after it looked like junior punter Jeremy Crawshaw — deserving of a “good” himself for his 56.4 average on the night — had pinned FSU inside its own 5.
  • The Seminoles converted fourth-and-3 and third-and-3 on the drive where they ultimately took the final lead of the game. This aggression from FSU head coach Mike Norvell paralleled situations where Napier kicked field goals earlier in the contest. Scared money don’t make money, though, right?
  • The Gators had the ball down two with 7:17 left only for the offensive line to completely implode with Brown getting sacked twice and nearly throwing a pick because he had no time to operate. It was the third of four straight three-and-outs to end the game.
  • Florida missed three tackles on a 26-yard FSU score that iced the game. This was a symptom all night, as it has been all season.

Odds & ends

Florida fell to 37-28-2 all-time against Florida State with a 22-13-1 edge in The Swamp … the Gators have now lost consecutive games to the Noles … Florida has fallen to 9-4 at home under Napier … UF has lost five straight meetings as an unranked opponent against a ranked FSU … the Gators lost for the second time overall (10-2) when leading after the third quarter, the second time this season (4-2) when scoring first, the first time when leading at halftime (5-1) and the second straight week when outrushing an opponent (4-2) … Florida is now 1-7 when scoring less than 21 points, 4-14 when allowing 21+ points … the Gators fell to 2-10 against AP Top 25 teams under Napier, 1-5 this season … Florida is now 2-7 against top-five teams since 2018 … UF has scored in 448 consecutive games, an NCAA record

What it means / What’s next?

Nothing. The season is over. Well, technically, the offseason is next. The Gators had five chances to secure bowl eligibility — including four completely winnable games — and lost them all. Florida should have defeated Arkansas, Missouri and/or Florida State. Period. It was right there with LSU, but getting taken down by an incredible effort from the potential Heisman Trophy winner is not shameful. Georgia was dominant; that’s no surprise.

One could look at the Gators coming excruciatingly close against the Tigers and Seminoles as a positive. Perhaps if they had beaten the Razorbacks and were somewhat playing with house money, that stance could be acceptable. The truth is that Florida had all three teams beat and lost every game for the same reasons it lost early in the season to Utah and Kentucky — and the same reasons it dropped the final three games of 2022.

Let’s repeat it all once more, just for the record, despite these same points being made in this space all season and dating back as far as 2022 …

  • Napier can no longer call offensive plays for the Gators. He must hire a true offensive coordinator and should have done so entering the 2023 season. But after giving himself a second chance, he certainly cannot maintain that role now. Forget the fact that he does not have a feel for the game and consistently puts Florida in bad positions, it’s far too much for an SEC head coach to be tasked with handling play calls — particularly when that person also needs to improve their game management, which Napier most certainly does.
  • The two offensive line coach experiment must end. The fact that Rob Sale (the leader of the unit, being paid like an offensive coordinator despite not calling plays) cannot recruit, develop or coach talent is bad enough, but having two coaches leading arguably the worst unit on the team — and one of the worst in the sport — is unfathomable. Both should likely be removed from the program to pave way for a new coordinator and position coach.
  • The Gators badly need a special teams coordinator. The GameChanger bullshit ran its course long ago as Florida has one of the worst units in the nation in the third phase of the game. UF is also one of the few programs in the country that does not have a coach in this role.
  • Napier must make a far more concerted effort to acquire top talent from the transfer portal. He’s done a great job recruiting high school talent — assuming he can hold on to the Gators’ now-fifth ranked class (which was once No. 3 nationally before seeing three decommitments this month) — but Florida needs high-level talent with experience to turn this program around. It cannot continue to rely on young players — and the roster will remain immensely young in 2024 if he does not hit the portal hard.


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