5 questions with Florida beat writer: How can Georgia beat Gators?
ATHENS — Georgia football has questions to answer, literally everywhere, and Kirby Smart and his staff have been playing catch up since workouts resumed in July.
The Bulldogs’ talent was enough to overcome the likes of Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky, and Georgia even managed to lead for a half over Alabama.
But things have soured the past three weeks with quarterback Stetson Bennett throwing 5 interceptions in the past two games and putting the ball on the turf twice.
Smart has stayed behind Bennett, for now, as the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (4-1) prepare to play in Florida at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday against the No. 8-ranked Gators in Jacksonville.
There’s much to be learned about Georgia football, the season essentially on the line.
But Florida has its own story in the works, and the Orlando Sentinel’s Edgar Thompson was kind enough to answer five key questions for DawgNation this week:
1. What has made the Florida offense so effective this season?
ET: Quarterback Kyle Trask, pass-catchers Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney and head coach Dan Mullen are a good place to start. Pick your poison among a Heisman candidate at QB (Trask), the best tight end in college football (Pitts), arguably the most explosive weapon in the SEC (Toney) and one of the best play callers in the college game (Mullen).
With 18 touchdown throws through four games, an SEC first, Trask is on an unprecedented roll. The redshirt senior’s experience, anticipation, preparation and accuracy are hard to defend. Trask also has not faced a defense this season anything like Georgia will throw at him.
The Bulldogs also have not faced a matchup nightmare like the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Pitts, who can line up outside, inside and even run block. Kirby Smart said in all his years in the SEC, he’s never seen a player quite like him.
Smart also raved about Toney, a rare physical specimen himself due to his ability to change direction, accelerate and even lower his shoulder to finish plays. A former high school quarterback, Toney has always been worth the price of admission and able to deliver excitement. He finally has developed his skills as a receiver and is sure to be among the most improved players in college football. Seven touchdowns in four games more than doubles his career total (three) entering 2020.
Mullen, with an assist from first-year offensive coordinator Brian Johnson and longtime assistants John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales, knows how to game plan and attack defenses. Mullen will find a weakness, a favorable matchup or formation and exploit time and again. It is sure to be a chess match with a defensive mastermind like Smart.
But the Gators might have too many pieces to keep in check, particularly for an undermanned Bulldogs D missing star safety Richard LeCounte. Florida senior wide receiver Trevon Grimes, an NFL prototype at 6-foot-5, 214 pounds, has yet to break out this season. He is not the only one. Unless Georgia can pressure and confuse Trask, it could be a long day on the back end of the defense.
2. Is there pressure on Dan Mullens to beat Georgia this season, and why has he been acting odd the past month?
ET: I don’t know what is in Mullen’s mind and heart. But you don’t have to be Sigmeud Freud to understand how important the game is to him in Year 3 and a Gators program eager to take the next step.
Mullen’s erratic behavior of late could be the product of the pandemic, the pressure of expectations at Florida or perhaps even a bit calculated. He certainly took the attention off his team’s late-game collapse at Texas A&M by calling for a packed house at the Swamp the following game. The proclamation clearly backfired when a COVID-19 outbreak on his team infected more than two dozen players and some coaches, including Mullen himself.
There was a bit more method to Mullen’s madness last weekend against Missouri. Mullen’s maniacal charge onto the field following a questionable hit on Trask helped ignite a benches-clearing brawl and eventually earned Mullen a $25,000 fine.
But Mullen’s players – and I’m guessing a few recruits tuning in – loved his passion and willingness to stand up for them at all costs. The melee was not a good look for anyone involved, most of all Mullen. Yet it lit a fire in the Gators, who dominated the second half and picked up some serious momentum following a three-week stretch without a game.
If Florida ends a three-game skid against Georgia, Mullen is sure to see his fine as money well spent. Fans, after all, are sure to get antsy, even angry, if the Gators drop their fourth straight game to the Bulldogs for the first time since the early 1980s.
3. Do Gators’ fans have faith in Todd Grantham after the Texas A&M loss, and if so, what do they like about him?
ET: Much of Gator Nation will turn on Grantham in a blink, changing their opinions on him even from game to game. But Grantham earns $1.8 million for a reason: he knows the SEC and knows the game. Yet, his track record of success and ability to produce exciting, suffocating defenses are often forgotten by Florida fans when his defense flounders.
The nickname “Third and Grantham” has followed the 54-year-old to Gainesville. The moniker certainly made the rounds on social media after the Aggies piled up 543 yards, converted 12 of 15 times on third down and scored on a fourth-down touchdown run. Following the A&M flop, even Dan Mullen was looking for answers and sitting in on defensive meetings.
Following the recent virus outbreak, Grantham and the Gators responded three weeks later with their best defensive performance of the season against Missouri. The long-awaited return of defensive tackle Kyree Campbell was a huge boost. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior helped shore up Florida’s run defense and vastly improve the physicality up front.
Georgia transfer Brenton Cox Jr. was able to move back a few steps from the line of scrimmage and into a more natural linebacker role, where he looked like the player Florida fans have been waiting to see. Forced into action due to the absence of three veteran starters, the Gators’ promising young defensive backs, like Atlanta-bred safety Rashad Torrence, rose to the occasion.
But that is one game of four this season. After the first three games, a defense ranked in the top 10 nationally at the end of last season was in the bottom 10 of college football. While the Missouri performance may have renewed faith in Grantham a bit, he will be back in the crosshairs if the Gators stumble again against Georgia.
4. Why hasn’t Florida developed more of a run game with all the talent they seem to have acquired in the backfield?
ET: Dan Mullen wants a balanced attack, but he also is not stubborn or stupid. Trask and Co. give the Gators their best chance to score points, so the running game takes a backseat.
UF also do not have the explosive talent at tailback to steer the ship. With Lamical Perine gone to the NFL, the Gators have looked fairly pedestrian running the football this season. Even with Perine in 2019, Florida struggled to generate a consistent push up front and open holes in the defense.
The offensive line’s run blocking has improved, but the unit still seems better suited keeping Trask clean in the pocket than opening running lanes for Dameon Pierce. Pierce, the Gators starting tailback. is powerful and has shown breakaway ability, including a 75-yard touchdown last season at South Carolina.
Backups Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright have had their moments this season. Davis is a pass-catching threat worthy of the Bulldogs attention when he’s in the game. Wright showed some explosiveness during the A&M loss.
The trio has proven to be capable, but just not special. The Gators passing attack is, so no need for Mullen to force things.
5. How much of a difference-maker has Brenton Cox been for Florida and what do you expect from him against Georgia?
ET: Keeping the former Bulldogs at bay will be a focal point for Georgia, especially after Cox’s breakout performance against Missouri.
Cox’s first three games wearing orange and blue produced some impact plays, yet too many costly breakdowns. The redshirt sophomore’s play mirrored the Gators overall defense.
Against Missouri, Cox came alive.
Cox did fail to contain a reverse early against Missouri, rekindling memories of his failure to set the edge at Texas A&M. This time, he shook off the miscue and terrorized the Tigers the rest of the night.
Cox finished with five tackles, a sack, three quarterback hurries and fumble recovery leading to a touchdown pass on the next play from Trask to Toney.
The performance was long expected from Cox’s teammates, who have marveled at his explosiveness and talent since he transferred two summers ago from Athens. Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs are sure to have seen similar flashes from Cox as a freshman during the 2018 season.
Whether Georgia can keep Cox in check two seasons later is one of the more interesting storylines entering Saturday’s showdown.