As Jim McElwain’s first year in Gainesville progressed, the mantra seemed to grow stronger and stronger: it’s ugly, but the Gators are winning.
No more. Not after the Gators’ most recent, and by far the ugliest, escape.
Treon Harris’s 13 yard touchdown pass to Jake McGee and a defensive stand on fourth in goal gave Florida a 20-14 overtime victory over Florida Atlantic in the Swamp. The win improved the Gators’ record to 10-1, and made Jim McElwain the first Gator coach to ever win ten games in his first season. That tenth win also means that McElwain has won as many games in his first year at Florida as Will Muschamp won in his last two combined.
But nobody really cares about any of that. Florida struggled tooth and nail and needed overtime to beat a paltry FAU team that’s 2-9 in Conference USA. And even that record doesn’t come close to describing just how embarrassing it was.
The Owls rank in or near the bottom fifth of the country in every offensive and defensive statistic you can find. Or at least they did before they played Florida. Would you believe this FAU team was giving up 428 yards per game (against mostly fellow C-USA teams) going into the Florida game? The Gators’ offense made the Owls’ defense look like Alabama’s, generating a measly 253 yards of total offense- 94 of which came on three plays. The Gators ran 60 other plays in the game that combined to gain 159 yards. Against a defense that was giving up 428 yards per game.
Even worse than the offense’s overall ineptitude was the fact that Treon Harris went out of his way to help FAU. A failure to escape an FAU rush- or do something smart, like throw the ball away- resulted in a strip sack, which the Owls recovered in the end zone. He also elected, on a first and ten deep in FAU territory, to throw a wounded duck into double coverage. Take a wild guess as to how that turned out.
To Harris’s credit, he did do a few nice things. He floated a perfectly thrown deep ball to Antonio Callaway for a touchdown late in the third quarter, and he took off on multiple runs of 15+ yards. But the sum of his effort yesterday can’t be looked at as a very strong one. In fact, if not for a spectacular effort by the defense, he would have been the main cause of what would have rivaled Georgia Southern as Florida’s most embarrassing loss in school history.
Florida began the game by punting on its first three possessions. Luckily, the Gators’ defense forced FAU to do the same, and then they got a big break on special teams after the third one. Antonio Callaway took the punt and returned it 52 yards inside the FAU red zone to set up the Gators with tremendous field position. What did Treon Harris and the offense do with it? They wasted it, of course, going nowhere and leaving it up to the Gators’ frighteningly inconsistent kicker, Austin Hardin. And of course Hardin missed the 37 yard field goal, clanking it off the left upright. The special teams giveth and the special teams taketh away our sanity.
But Florida got a break when FAU returned the favor with a missed field goal of their own, a 45 yarder that flew several yards to the right. This came after the Owls’ only decent drive of the first half, in which a holding penalty on the third down play before the field goal might have cost the Owls a touchdown on the drive. Neither team did anything the rest of the half, so the halftime score read #8 Florida 0, FAU 0. Yep, that’s embarrassing.
The defense had played well for most of the first half, but they hadn’t made any real big plays to speak of. That changed when Antonio Morrison laid into FAU quarterback Jason Driskel (yes, Jeff’s brother) and popped the ball out. Florida’s Taven Bryan snatched it and returned it 48 yards to the FAU 2 yard line. As bad as Florida’s offense is, especially at capitalizing on opportunities, they couldn’t waste this one. Kelvin Taylor banged into the end zone on his second shot at the old goal line dive play, and Florida led 7-0.
Then came a miracle. Pinned at its own nine yard line after an FAU drive that went nowhere, Florida’s offense drove 91 yards in four plays for a touchdown. Granted, FAU helped with a pass interference, but Harris found Jordan Cronkrite in the flat for a 16 yard gain and then hit Callaway for the aforementioned 53 yard touchdown:
TOUCHDOWN GATORS!!! Treon Harris with the bomb to Antonio Callaway and it's 14-0 Florida https://t.co/dgplb5ufEv
— #InAllKindsOfWeather (@AllKindsWeather) November 21, 2015
Say what you want about Treon Harris- I don’t think he’s any better than most of you do- but was a pretty damned good throw. And it put the Gators up 14-0 near the end of the third quarter.
But that’s when things started to get really scary. With all the confidence of Alabama, FAU mounted a 9 play, 75 yard drive that ended with Jaquez Johnson finding Kalib Woods for a ten yard touchdown strike. I don’t know what it was, but the defense suddenly looked disinterested in playing football. Florida’s front seven stopped getting push in the trenches, which also helped open up running lanes for FAU’s Greg Howell, and a bust in the secondary allowed Johnson to find Jenson Stoshak for a 28 yard gain down the sidelines. To its credit, Florida’s defense would then step up and look like itself again for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, the offense would, too.
A promising drive by Florida following the FAU touchdown ended with Harris floating a wounded duck into double coverage. Predictably, it was intercepted in the end zone. Why he forced a ball into double coverage on first down is something you’ll have to ask him, because we’re at the point now where I’m done trying to understand what he’s thinking. Florida corner Jalen Tabor tried to make up for Harris’s pick by ripping the ball away from Greg Howell after he caught a screen pass and grabbing it for a weird interception, which set Florida up at FAU’s 21. But the Gators’ offense said, nah, no thanks: a failure to get a first down brought on Hardin again, who of course missed the 34 yard field goal attempt.
And then came the strip sack touchdown. As usual, FAU went nowhere, but Dalton Schomp pinned the Gators deep with a great punt. On the second play of the drive, Harris was nailed from behind and the ball flew out of his grip and into the end zone. FAU fell on it for a touchdown. The offensive line certainly isn’t without blame here, as they seem to be regressing after showing some promise during October, but Harris can’t hold the ball for seven seconds and expect anything good to come out of it. He just can’t.
So now it’s tied at 14. Neither offense does anything the rest of the way, and so we go to overtime. Yes, really. 9-1 Florida, who went 7-1 in the SEC, is going to OVERTIME with an FAU team that’s 2-8. Thankfully, Treon Harris had one more “big play” in him, floating a throwback to Jake McGee, who shook off two defenders and scored. FAU then picked up a first down, but was then driven backwards and Jaquez Johnson’s desperation fourth down heave into the end zone was poked away by Brian Poole. Game over. Florida survives.
It’s always better to win a game than it is to lose it. Just ask South Carolina. But that’s about the only positive to take away from this game. The frustrating thing is, the Gators have a defense that’s good enough to keep them in every game they play, but the offense has disintegrated into a unit that’s so bad its best bet may be taking knees on every offensive snap and hoping the defense or special teams scores for them. My hopes and patience for Treon Harris, once unlimited, have been reduced to close to nothing. It’s reached the stage where I just beg him not to do something stupid every time he takes a snap because that’s the only way Florida can lose a game if the defense plays as well as it has the last month.
All Florida has to do to beat FSU is not beat themselves; I just hope that’s not too much to ask them. This team is getting worse as the season draws to its conclusion, and not better. Regardless, they’re one win away from finishing the regular season having accomplished everything anybody could have asked them to do in the offseason. And so until we get to watch them take the field Saturday night to try to do that, all we can do is hope that we see a totally different team than the one we saw against FAU and Vanderbilt.
If we do, maybe this story will have a happy ending after all.