For the rivalry week edition of our Q&A series, we’re joined by our friend PullingGuardGator. You can find him on Twitter here. We discuss Feleipe Franks, explosive plays, and quite an opportunity for a road favorite.
TN: The Gators sit at 8-3 (5-3) in Dan Mullen’s first season and 17th by S&P+. What were your expectations entering the season, and how are you feeling now?
PGG: I was on record of saying 8-4, with 7-5 more likely than 9-3, so they have a chance to exceed my expectations. I thought the offense would marginally improve, and would be limited by Franks and a below average offensive line (more on them later). It’s safe to say, they have surpassed my expectations in those two concerns. Mullen has really impressed me scheming around the issues Franks has and making this offense more than functional. His game plans in the Miss St. & LSU games were masterful, as the UF offense went for 74% and 81% success rates against two top ten defenses.
TN: Florida’s offense checks in at 31st in the nation with the 42nd-best passing attack. What do the Gators try to do through the air with Feleipe Franks at the helm? How do you feel about the match-up with FSU’s passing defense?
PGG: Franks is fine as long as UF stays on schedule and don’t have to play from behind by too much. There isn’t a throw he can’t make, but the accuracy issues will always rear their head. He’s done a better job this year when running out of a broken pocket and keeping his eyes downfield. Against teams with a good pass rush(Miss St) Mullen went to the quick passing game, and it worked pretty well. Lots of bubble and slip screens. UF receivers all have been willing blockers this season which has helped in that department. There’s no really “go-to receiver”. Van Jefferson, the Ole Miss transfer, is probably the most talented, but he’s one of five receivers with more than 18 catches, so they spread it around.
TN: The Gators are 34th in the nation running the ball. Do you think they’ll be able to have success on the ground against the ‘Noles? Do you think Florida will find a way to generate explosive plays, an area in which they’ve struggled this year?
PGG: If they want to win, they’ll have to run the ball. They have three very talented backs in Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine, and Dameon Pierce. The run game has been a strength all season, but has gotten a lot better since the early part of the year. Missouri is the only game where UF didn’t put up decent numbers, but they were playing form behind, and Mullen kind of abandoned the run. Franks’ willingness to run has really opened up things. In the South Carolina game, he finally got ticked off enough to put his shoulder down and finish runs like a guy who is 6’-6”, 240 lbs should. The key, though, has been the offensive line. Many Florida fans were less than excited about OL coach John Hevesy joining the staff, because of his lack of recruiting chops, but I love him as a coach. I remember the UF OL’s fondly during his previous tenure in Gainesville, and every time I watched Miss St, I was impressed with their OL play. The three headed trio at running back aren’t what you would call explosive players, but a player to watch there is Kadarius Toney, who is the closest thing UF has had that resembles Percy Harvin. Toney doesn’t have the size or maybe the top end speed of Harvin, but his elusiveness is exciting to watch. He only has 18 carries but is averaging 11 yards per attempt.
TN: Do you think Florida’s 29th-ranked defense can handle FSU’s running game with four or five up front?
PGG: I’m not sure there front is quite as good as Notre Dame’s to pull that off. They’ve been pretty average against the run (41st rushing S&P). It’s hard to figure out the resurgence of the FSU rushing game the last few weeks. Notre Dame stayed mostly in dime personnel, and FSU only had moderate success running the ball. FSU had decent numbers against BC, but if you look at the advanced stats (38% succ. rate) it was kind of a feast or famine thing, so if the Gators can avoid giving up the big play, I think they can get the Noles in some third and long situations where pass rushers Jachai Polite, Jabari Zuniga, and Cece Jefferson can really wreak havoc.
TN: The Gators have strangely struggled on passing downs and have given up quite a few explosive plays. Would you attribute this to what we at SBN have called Todd Grantham’s emotional blitzing, or what?
PGG: I would attribute it more to a combination of a few issues. Losing talented corner Marco Wilson in the Kentucky game was a dagger to a team who was already thin at that position. It’s forced them to play true freshman Trey Dean quite a bit. Dean is going to be really good, but his inexperience will show up every so often. CJ Henderson is outstanding at the other corner, and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson does fine in the slot. The safety position is an issue for the Gators. They aren’t good in coverage. Hopefully the return of Brad Stewart, who is supposed to play, helps there, as he’s their best safety. The linebackers, David Reese and Vosean Joseph, are also exposed in coverage quite a bit.
TN: Florida’s special teams are rated 10th at the moment. How have you felt about this group?
PGG: They’ve been great all year. Punter Tommy Townsend is constantly flipping the field, and freshman kicker Evan McPherson has only missed two field goals. They get Freddie Swain back this week, who is a decent punt returner. I feel really good about this matchup, because watching FSU’s special teams this year has been, uh, something.
TN: Finally, let’s hear it. The Gators opened as a 3-point road favorite, which has since been bet up. Do you see Florida snapping a couple of impressive streaks? How will the game unfold?
PGG: I feel a whole lot better had BC held on last weekend. I was really impressed with FSU’s fight that whole game. It’s definitely a team that hasn’t quit, so credit has to go to Willie Taggart for that at least. I expect the Gators to run and keep running, even if they don’t have a lot of success early. On defense, if UF can get FSU into passing downs, I think they are golden. If FSU can keep Francois clean on passing downs, I’ll be surprised. I expect a close game, and I like UF to end the streak something like 27-20.
Big thanks to PGG for his time and insight! Happy Thanksgiving, Tomahawk Nation.