Florida came into its game against Michigan as an underdog. By the time the game was over, anyone who picked the Wolverines felt like a fool.
The Gators amassed 413 yards, 243 of it on the ground and outscored Michigan 28-5 in the second half. Clearly the missing Michigan players – particularly Rashan Gary and Devin Bush – affected the vaunted Michigan defense.
But the missing players don’t account for the domination that Florida showed in this game. Last season Florida’s offense generated 192 total yards in the entire game, 11 of them rushing. In this Peach Bowl, the Gators had 228 total yards and 128 rushing yards in the first half.
Florida had a 4-point lead at the half last year but the game felt like Michigan was ready to take control at any time. Conversely, the Gators only had a 3-point lead in this one but felt like they were the ones taking control.
Just as it was during the Florida State game last month, once Florida was able to punch the ball into the end zone rather than settle for field goals, the game very quickly tilted in its favor.
The result is that Florida finishes the 2018 season at 10-3 and has established itself as a deserving top-10 team. They also head into the offseason for the first time in nearly a decade without having to wonder whether it has a QB on the roster who can help win games.
The Wolverines got dominated up-front and were continuously gashed for big plays. Florida had nine plays of over 20 yards and scored on any drive that contained an explosive play.
Perhaps more importantly though, Florida was able to force Michigan into choosing how to defend the Florida offense and regardless of what Michigan chose, Florida had an answer.
On this play, Florida is in a 5-wide receiver formation with four of them towards the bottom of the screen. There are only four defenders in the box and a blitzing safety at the snap. The other safety is 15-yards deep. That means there are four defenders for four receivers.
A point that color analyst Brock Huard made during the broadcast (and I pointed out in my preview) was that this play was only legal because Lamical Perine (#22) caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage. The key to this play is Kadarius Toney (#4) and his ability to occupy two defensive backs long enough to let Perine slip away from his man.
This is the exact same play call from the exact same formation. The only difference is that on this play Michigan has six men in the box, meaning that they are blitzing Franks instead of having a deep safety. That still leaves the same one-on-one coverage on the outside, Toney occupies two defensive backs and Perine goes in for an easy score.
On this play, Michigan moves the safety over towards the four wide receivers. That leaves the middle wide open for Franks to run for a TD. Note the great combo block by center Nick Buchanan (#66) who gets to the linebacker and allows Franks to cut back and extend a first-down run into a touchdown run.
But those are quick throws. What about when Florida wanted to take a shot deep?
On this play, Franks has a single-high safety look from Michigan again. Tight end Moral Stephens (#82) occupies two linebackers by running down the seam. Toney (#4) occupies the other linebacker and a corner by running a shallow crossing route. Note also that Perine (#22) chips the Michigan defensive end.
The result is that Florida has two receivers against three defensive backs and Franks has a completely clean pocket. Had the safety gotten over fast enough to take away the throw to Jefferson (#12), Franks could have thrown to the other wide receiver on a shorter route.
The clean pocket was the common theme for the big plays Franks was able to make. Though completions were few and far between – especially in the second half – he had the ability to step into his throws when he needed to.
On this play, Franks actually throws into double coverage. But he’s able to step into the throw and deliver it accurately with plenty of zip on the throw. Had it been thrown later or with less strength, it could have easily been an interception. Instead, it was a big play on the way to a touchdown that put the Gators up three scores.
This is the brilliance of Mullen’s game plan. No matter what Michigan did, he had a way to exploit it. His offensive line forced Michigan to blitz and when they did, most of the time he had a counter. Instead of trying to replicate exactly what Ohio State did a few weeks ago, he furthered those concepts in a way that allowed Franks to run up the middle as an added wrinkle.
And finally, the Gators executed well. That starts with Franks, who averaged 7.5 yards per throw, very close to his season average of 7.6. However, he also ran for 74 yards at a 5.3 yards per rush clip.
The result is that Franks had a yards above replacement (YAR ) of 0.91 even though he only had a QB rating of 134.1. Basically Franks was average through the air, not particularly accurate (56.5%) but was able to make up for it with his legs, which kept the chains moving and also were the primary weapon on the Gators drive to go ahead 13-10 in the first half.
Florida also only had five penalties and didn’t turn the ball over. But perhaps the best way to look at their ability to execute is to point out where they haven’t in the past.
This was two years ago against LSU. Florida was dominating up-front and McElwain was criticized for getting cute down by the goal line. There are a lot of things you can criticize McElwain and Nussmeier for, but this was a decision I defended at the time. The pitch was wide open for the touchdown, but it was a poor pitch by QB Austin Appleby and the offense looked rushed.
This is Saturday against Michigan. The rhythm of the play is better. Franks is actually a threat to run (Appleby was not in Nussmeier’s offense). The pitch is made on-time and accurately. The result is an incredibly easy TD run.
It’s the exact same concept. It was just run well this time.
The Florida defense played well too, though it didn’t start out that way. Michigan hit three big plays in the first quarter and it felt like they were on the verge of breaking free for a TD at any time. However, they only turned one of those big plays into points and didn’t hit another big play in the rest of the game.
The building block of all of that was what they were able to do against the run. The Wolverines had 40 yards rushing in the first quarter, but finished with 69 yards rushing overall. Not coincidently, Shea Patterson averaged 11.8 yards per throw in the first quarter when the Gators defense was off-balance but didn’t average over 5.7 yards per throw in the remaining three quarters.
But the turning point of the game was after Michigan blocked a Tommy Townsend punt, was up 7-6 and had an opportunity to put pressure on the Gators. At the time the Gators had struggled converting in the red zone and it felt like they might end up paying for that.
Often after a big turnover or blocked punt, the opposition will try to strike quickly. It appears that’s what Michigan was trying to do.
Florida only rushes four defenders against five offensive linemen. Tackle Kyree Campbell (#55) runs a stunt, putting him on the edge where he pushes offensive lineman Jon Runyan (#75) back into QB Shea Patterson. The fact that Florida could get to Patterson only rushing four men meant they could protect against a deep strike and make Patterson uncomfortable.
From this point on, Florida was able to do just that. In fact, it happened again two plays later.
Here Jachai Polite (#99) beats his man at the snap and forces a fumble. Cece Jefferson (#96) also drills Patterson to disrupt any opportunity to dump the ball off.
Three plays prior Michigan was in a position to potentially put Florida on its heels. Because of the Gators defensive line, Michigan was only up 10-6 and Florida was able to take the lead on its next drive.
The constant pressure (5 sacks, 8 TFL) forced Patterson into one of his worst performances of the season. After that big first quarter, he wound up only averaging 6.6 yards per throw and completed 61 percent of his throws. Perhaps more importantly, after opening up the game with a 21-yard run, he finished the game with 9 more rushes for -16 yards.
Taken as a whole, he was inefficient through the air (114.2 QB rating) and inefficient overall (-1.23 YAR). Because of his struggles on the road, it would have been reasonable to expect Patterson to be average against the Gators. The fact that he played so poorly is directly attributable to the Florida defense, and particularly the pressure they were able to bring.
In Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville, the Gators went 10-4. Perhaps it’s because that team finished with three straights losses, but that felt different than this year.
The losses to FSU and Alabama in 2015 were expected. But the 41-7 shellacking to Michigan really set a tone that there was still a ton of work to do for Florida to get back to elite status.
This win doesn’t make me think this team is quite ready to take on Alabama, but it certainly does emphasize how strong player development is within Dan Mullen’s program. It also gives Florida wins over teams ranked 7th, 11th and 18th.
That is significant because from 2010-2017, Florida was 9-28 against teams that finished ranked in the top-25 at the end of the season (either CFP or AP Poll before the CFP), including 4-15 versus teams in the top-10. In his tenure in Gainesville, Jim McElwain went 3-9 with an average score of 18-30.
Mullen finishes 2018 at 3-3 with an average score of 22-24. He also finishes 1-1 versus top-10 teams (assuming Michigan stays within the top-10). But more importantly, the days of Florida being outclassed by the big boys appears to be over.
That doesn’t mean Florida will never lose. But even in the losses to Kentucky and Georgia, Florida had opportunities to win the game. The only game you can’t say that is the loss against Missouri.
But the days of 27-2 and 56-16 losses to Florida State and Alabama where the team looks listless and non-competitive appear to be over. Losing all hope when the opposition gets to 17 points is definitely a thing of the past.
That’s what we were always looking for under McElwain. Some hope that things were going to turn around.
Mullen has given us a team that competes every play and every game. He’s given us significant progress with the offense and at the QB position. He’s given us a mantra (Gator Standard and relentless effort).
But most of all, he’s given us hope that championships bigger than the Peach Bowl are coming, and coming in the not-too-distant-future.