The Florida Gators went into Columbia, Missouri, needing a good performance out of its defense. They got it.
UF outgained Missouri by 130 yards on Saturday, its third best margin against Power Five opponents this year (Tennessee, 202; Vanderbilt, 432). While it struggled in the pass game early, it picked up the pieces in the second half.
Despite getting a big win in its final SEC game, the Gators offense struggled in the first half.
The unit moved the ball decently early (earning 176 total yards in the half), but it couldn’t pick up critical third downs (going 1 for 8). And it was usually just one play that stifled UF drives.
Kyle Trask found a fruitful connection with receiver Van Jefferson on the opening drive (three receptions, 50 yards), but a sack made it third-and-15, and Florida settled for a field goal (important early points nonetheless).
Another sack stifled the next drive, and the third one was cut short on a miscommunication between Trask and running back Lamical Perine.
On the fourth drive, Trask started feeding receiver Jacob Copeland, but a drop by the redshirt freshman on third-and-3 ended that march.
Trevon Grimes was his quarterback’s favorite target on the fifth possession, but a sack in the red zone caused the Gators to take another field goal, and they wouldn’t make it past their own 40 before halftime.
However, Trask came back and played a much better third quarter. He was 10 of 12 in the frame, passing for 127 yards and two touchdowns. He also didn’t take a sack.
The biggest knock on the redshirt junior was that he made a couple of dangerous throws, both of which should have been intercepted.
Two players who stepped up and made plays when called upon were Emory Jones and Kadarius Toney.
Jones led Florida in rushing, averaging 6.5 yards per carry (six attempts for 39 yards). He also connected with Toney on his lone pass attempt for a 48 yard reception.
In addition to his big catch from Jones, Toney also had a 25 yard run on a jet sweep.
The pass from Jones to Toney set UF up at the Missouri six, but it couldn’t punch it in for six.
That drive was a good barometer of the game for Florida, which averaged over nine yards per play on first down but was 3 of 14 on third down.
Mizzou had difficulty bottling up the Gators’ playmakers, but when it came down the crucial plays, the Tigers got off the field more often than not.
Jon Greenard means everything to this defense.
The edge rusher had five tackles for loss and two of UF’s three sacks (and he still applied pressure on T.J. Slaton’s sack).
Greenard was easily the most outstanding player on the field on Saturday, and he led the Gators to their second-straight win without relinquishing a touchdown.
Another player who had a nice performance was corner Marco Wilson.
The redshirt sophomore made a tone-setting, open-field tackle for loss on Missouri’s first drive, and he punctuated the day with an interception on the final drive.
While the Florida offense struggled on third down, the defense thrived. The Tigers were 5 of 18 on third and only 1 of 7 in the first half. By the time they made their second conversion, it was already a 20-6 UF advantage.
The Gators also forced six three-and-outs on 14 drives. That’s a 43 percent rate.
And who was Florida’s best player on third down? Greenard.
He had two tackles for loss on third down, one of them exemplifying his maturity and dsicipline.
Mizzou ran a misdirection play on third-and-2. Quarterback Kelly Bryant faked a toss to his running back and turned around to run against the grain of the play. The Florida defense was supposed to move toward the toss, and it did, except for Greenard. He stayed home and stuffed Bryant for another three-and-out.
With the leadership of its grad-transfer, Florida finished SEC play by playing its best defense.
Special Teams: A-
If you’re going to kick three field goals and punt eight times, you better hope your punter and kicker brought the best versions of themselves. Evan McPherson and Tommy Townsend did.
McPherson nailed all three of his kicks from 47 yards, 39 yards and 22 yards. His first two conversions were the difference in the first half, as UF took a 6-3 lead into the locker room.
Townsend averaged a hearty 45.9 yards per punt and booted three over 50 yards. Unfortunately a 71-yard boomer trickled into the end zone for a touchback, but he did pin the Tigers inside their own 20 four times.
He had one bad punt for 28 yards. The ball took an unfortunate bounce on an already short kick, bringing the line of scrimmage to the UF 46. Mizzou took advantage of the good field position with its second field goal of the game, making it 13-6.
As far as returns went, Freddie Swain only returned one punt for no yards. It wasn’t at all his fault, as horrible blocking from his teammates allowed him to be swarmed by four Tigers.
Missouri also had a decent kick return for 30 yards by Tyler Badie, but the damage was mitigated by a defensive three-and-out for UF.
Good teams don’t hurt themselves.
Penalties are self inflicted wounds that come down to decision making and coaching, and the Gators made some egregious mistakes in that department, especially after the play was over.
Kyree Campbell was the first culprit.
The defensive tackle slapped Missouri center Trystan Colon-Castillo in the face. The penalty moved Missouri from its own 25 to its own 40.
Late in the second quarter, Trevon Grimes committed and absolutely critical unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he headbutted a Missouri defender.
Grimes wasn’t defending a teammate, he was well away from the play, which was a third down converted thanks to a defensive holding. He moved Florida back to its own 33, destroying what was an attempted march toward points at the end of the second quarter.
These penalties are absolutely inexcusable in the 11th game of the season. They have to know better than to commit selfish acts like those. And their coaches have to emphasize how damaging plays like that can be, especially on the road in a division matchup.
On a better note, while third down execution was poor, Florida did some nice things offensively.
They spread the ball around, targeting a primary receiver on separate drives. Jefferson, Copeland, Josh Hammond and Kyle Pitts were all primary targets for Trask on different possessions. This forced Missouri to take away a threat from a previous drive, opening up a new receiving option, who Florida then targeted.
Jones came in at quarterback and opened up the running game. His presence causes the defense to account for another rushing threat and commit to protecting against the run. This also helps hit deep passes, sucking up safeties so that a player, such as Toney, can beat them over the top.
Jones’ pass to Toney was underthrown, but if it wasn’t, it would have been a touchdown.
The Gators also did a nice job of utilizing Lamical Perine in the passing game. Since they can’t use him in the running game with a mediocre offensive line, they split him out wide and matched him up against a linebacker.
Perine had four receptions for 24 yards, but he also beat his linebacker for a 15 yard touchdown.
The UF defense also buckled down on Missouri’s more potent rushing threat, allowing only 52 yards on 29 carries. Instead, the unit made Bryant beat it with his arm, and he couldn’t, completing 25 of 39 passes for 204 yards.
The Gators had a good game plan going into Columbia, they just couldn’t keep their wits about them at points.