5 questions with Florida beat writer Edgar Thompson
ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart has taken a respectful and measured tone discussing Florida, giving no indication there’s anything personal at stake.
Both Smart and Gators coach Dan Mullen have been complimentary and respectful of one another through the lead up to what’s annually one of the most intense rivalries in the nation.
The No. 8-ranked Bulldogs (6-1, 3-1 SEC) play No. 6-ranked Florida (7-1, 4-1) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. (TV: CBS). The SEC East Division title and a spot in the SEC Championship is on the line.
Both teams are coming off a bye, but the Gators would seem to have the momentum from a perception standpoint, coming off a 38-27 win over a South Carolina program that upset UGA just three weeks ago.
Georgia fell from No. 3 in the rankings after the home loss to the unranked Gamecocks, home fans booing the team in their most recent outing with the score tied 0-0 of what would become a 21-0 win over Kentucky.
Tailback D’Andre Swift said if fans didn’t like how Georgia played, they didn’t have to come to the games. Quarterback Jake Fromm said the team is not going to do “a 180” and change its style.
The wagons are circled, and he Bulldogs are dug in.
Meanwhile, Florida fans are having visions of a return to the SEC Championship Game with Mullen’s coaching and schemes drawing great praise.
DawgNation reached out to veteran Gators beat writer Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel for these five questions:
1. How much better has Kyle Trask gotten from his first outing?
ET: Trask hit the ground running for the Gators, stepping in for injured starter Feleipe Franks Sept. 14 at Kentucky and completing his first four throws to ignite a 19-point fourth quarter during a comeback win on the road. The performance was the first chapter in one of the most unexpected stories in college football – a redshirt junior without a college start stepping into the starting role and thriving for a top-10 team.
Trask, who had not started a game since the ninth grade, has proven to be a quick learner. Each week, the 21-year-old seems to take another step toward becoming a more complete quarterback, while showing the decision-making, accuracy, poise and toughness necessary at the position.
Trask shook off a scary moment Oct. 5 against Auburn, when he suffered a sprained left knee, only to return to help lead Florida to its biggest win of the season. Trask also had three fumbles that day, raising the specter that he might struggle against top competition. He did fumble once during road games at LSU and South Carolina.
At LSU, Trask went toe to toe with Tigers’ QB Joe Burrow until an ill-advised interception in the end zone undercut an otherwise brilliant night. A week later, Trask got off to a shaky start during difficult conditions at South Carolina and set up a Gamecocks’ touchdown with an interception early in the second half. Trask was undeterred. He picked up key third downs with short runs, bought time with his feet to complete a 9-yard pass on fourth-and-3 with UF trailing 20-17 and ended the day with a career-high four touchdowns (three in the fourth quarter) to become the first Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow with as many during an SEC road game.
In five SEC games, Trask has completed 63.9 percent of his throws, averaged 8.1 yards an attempt and posted a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-to-4. While not eye-popping numbers, Trask is performing as well as any UF QB in quite a while.
With the SEC East lead on line against Georgia, Trask will face his most pressure-packed challenge to date. Based on the past six weeks, there is little reason to think Trask is not equipped to handle it.
2. What does Dan Mullen do best as a head coach?
ET: Mullen loves the chess match of football, drawing Xs and Os, designing a game plan and making in-game adjustments. Few are better at it in the college game.
Ask South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, one of the game’s best defensive minds.
“Dan looks at things from a defensive perspective and what gives defenses problems as opposed to running his scheme and system — this is what we do,” Muschamp said. “He makes adjustments game week and he makes adjustments game day that he feels like give you issues defensively. I think that’s what makes him a really good play-caller.” When describing what he liked about Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, another well-respected play-caller, Mullen might as well have been speaking about himself. “He knows how to scratch where it itches,’ Mullen said. “‘If you’re going to show me this, I’m going to do this. If you’re showing that, I’m going to do this.’”
Florida’s coach will be looking to make Bulldogs’ defense squirm. Watching Mullen match wits with defensive-minded Kirby Smart should be worth the price of admission.
3. What is the Gators’ strength on offense and defense?
ET: Dan Mullen loves to have balance on offense. The 2018 Gators averaged 213.5 yards passing and 213.2 rushing yards.
But an inexperienced, inconsistent offensive line, a host of talented pass-catchers and an accurate quarterback who is a sound decision-maker have titled the scales dramatically toward throwing the football this season. Florida averages 277.3 passing yards and 142.4 rushing yards.
Mullen, though, will not abandon the ground game, and the Gators have scored at critical times on three runs of 75 yards or longer. Florida’s success still hinges on its ability to throw the ball, especially in the middle of the field, where tight end Kyle Pitts is a mismatch and slot receiver Freddie Swain has scored in four of the team’s five SEC games.
The Gators are one of three FBS teams with four pass catchers with 275+ yards, 20+ catches and 2+ touchdowns (Pitts, Swain, Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes).
On the other side of the ball, the Gators love to get after the quarterback and create turnovers. Problem is, Florida has not had its best two edge players – Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga – since the first quarter at Kentucky. Both are expected back from ankle injuries this week. The key will be whether either is 100 percent, or close to it.
Greenard sustained a high ankle sprain Oct. 5 against Auburn, while Zuniga missed three games, and then re-aggravated his injury Oct. 12 at LSU. With both on the field at the same time, Florida had 15 sacks in two games, albeit against Miami and UT-Martin.
The Gators still lead the SEC with 29 sacks and are tied with Alabama with 18 takeaways, but just one the past two games. If former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has all the pieces in place, he will make things tough on Bulldogs’ QB Jake Fromm.
4.What is Florida’s weakness on offense and defense?
While the Gators have enjoyed success throwing the ball and defending the pass, their lack of success running the football and inconsistency defending the run are cause for concern against Georgia.
Florida incrementally has improved running the football, finishing with 146 yards at LSU and 154 at South Carolina – the Gators’ two highest rushing totals this season. Against the Gamecocks, though, this included a 75-yard run by sophomore Dameon Pierce. Whether the Gators’ O-line can generate enough openings to keep the Bulldogs’ defense honest will be telling.
Meanwhile, Florida allowed 218 and 217 rushing yards, respectively, against LSU and South Carolina. The Gators were gashed in the middle of the defense too many times in both games.
Georgia’s offensive line and tailback D’Andre Swift posed the toughest challenge to date for the Gators’ run D. The return of Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga should shore up some issues, but sophomore Amari Burney could be key. Able to play linebacker and the Star position, Burney could be key to containing Swift and limiting chunk plays.
5. What will be the key to this game?
I am beginning to repeat myself, so see the above answers. Bottom line, if Florida cannot create some semblance of a running game, Georgia will not have to respect play action, can come after Kyle Trask with impunity and throw off the timing of the passing game.
If the Gators continue to be soft in the middle of the defense against the run, Bulldogs’ QB Jake Fromm will be able to find his comfort zone and make Florida pay.
In the end, though, Dan Mullen is the better coach and will have a game plan to keep the Gators in the game. Last season, Florida was hanging around until Georgia ran away in the fourth quarter. This Gators’ squad has a more reliable quarterback and complete belief now in Year 2 with this coaching staff.
Whether that is enough to carry Florida past Georgia, remains to be seen, but it should make for a better game than a season ago.
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