There was a moment on Saturday night where you knew the Florida Gators were in trouble.
No, it wasn't Kentucky's blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown. It wasn't Emory Jones' interception up the seam. It wasn't the Wildcats' fourth-quarter, lead-extending touchdown.
It was when Dan Mullen took the ball out of Jones' hands as halftime approached, despite having no reason to do so, and in fact, having three timeouts available with 1:56 to go while leading by three. Up until the fourth-quarter interception, Jones played just about perfectly within Mullen's game plan, but Mullen didn't trust Jones enough to run the two-minute drill and potentially take a two-score lead into halftime.
One of several examples that identify Mullen's game plan as a not-so-great one.
Mullen would disagree with that sentiment, saying after the game that he didn't believe he was outcoached when asked that very question. Instead, he blamed the Gators' bountiful offensive penalties as momentum killers - rightfully so, but at the same time failing to acknowledge the clear lack of trust he displayed in his quarterback.
“No, but 382 yards, I guess that's sputtering. I don't know. We had 382. They had 211 yards. I wouldn't think that would be the case," Mullen responded to the question.
"I think guys did some pretty good things right there, moving up and down. I think we got to really look at the penalties that we have and how to get ourselves in a better situation that way," he continued. "We outrushed them. We outpassed. We out-total gained them. The time of possession, we were better on third downs.”
Nothing Mullen explained is wrong: Florida outrushed Kentucky by 34 yards on the night, outpassed the Wildcats by 137 yards, won the time of possession battle by exactly ten minutes, and - although it wasn't impressive - outperformed UK on third-down conversions by over 18 percent.
So, sure, placing the blame on eight false starts called against the Gators' offense, and 15 yellow flags thrown against UF as a whole, makes sense.
"The penalties ... I think that was a big factor in it," Mullen said. "You look at it, if you get into a rhythm through the course of a game, you look at like - the penalties weren't little like, ticky-tack things, you're talking taking third downs off the board, you know, third down and backing us up, taking conversions, taking first-down runs off the board with holding penalties, those were the issues."
What didn't make much sense, however, was Mullen's strategy with his quarterback, especially in big moments.
Jones has yet to prove himself as the second coming of Kyle Trask through five starts, but he has played better by leaps and bounds in the past three games than he did in the first two of his debut starting season.
Prior to the final drive of the first half, Jones posted a passing line of 10-of-11 for 105 yards and a touchdown. Yet, Mullen kept things conservative with two short passing play calls and two rushes on the drive before heading to the locker, failing to utilize any of Florida's three timeouts or allow Jones to take risks. Jones had earned the right to push the ball downfield and hurry the offense up at that point.
Yet, Mullen practically admitted that he was afraid of the Gators' offense making a mistake in that situation.
“You're on the road, you're back to the wall, we were making some errors right there," Mullen offered. "...I thought we were playing, we're doing some good things, let's just go kind of settle everybody down and not create a potential issue right there.”
Until he was forced to uptick his passing calls near the end, Mullen called the remainder of the game afraid of a mistake as well. Considering he couldn't build any momentum, Jones finally made one by throwing his first interception since early in the Alabama game two weeks ago in the fourth quarter. Kentucky would go on to score after the turnover and created a two-possession lead.
Without many designed roll-outs and passing-favorable RPO concepts to extend routes as we've seen Florida call for Jones in recent weeks, the quarterback relied on the quick passing game to move the ball through the air as the second half wore on. The offense was vanilla but Jones connected with receivers left and right anyway, extending late drives with impressive throws to the sideline, into narrow windows, and on check-downs while under pressure.
However, from 11:46 in the second quarter until 11:32 in the fourth, Jones did not make - and was not given many opportunities to do so - any throws of 15 or more yards. Mullen displayed a clear lack of trust in his signal-caller, even though Jones should have earned it from his showing in recent weeks and even against the Wildcats. As a result, the offense lulled for a long stretch of time.
Jones would complete another two 15+ yard throws in the fourth quarter and was consistently accurate aside from the INT, while attempting to lead a late-game comeback. In response to the pick, Jones went 9-of-13 for 67 yards, making five particularly impressive and well-timed throws - albeit short-to-intermediate, quick tosses - on the two drives to end the game, four of those converting for first downs along with a couple of others that were completed and passed the sticks.
Jones had a touchdown set up on a swing pass to Jacob Copeland with space ahead, but Copeland slipped as he caught the ball at the nine-yard line on the final drive.
That led to the final play for UF's offense, on fourth and goal from the eight-yard line. Mullen finally called an intermediate passing concept - delayed four verts with Trent Whittemore releasing off of motion - against a defense with seven defenders hovering the goal line. It was never going to work in the first place, and to make matters worse, left tackle Richard Gouraige was beat in protection which eliminated a rushing/scrambling lane for Jones to make a play on his own.
Which left Jones with only one choice: Target Whittemore on the primary read. The window was tight, and a defensive back made a big play on the ball. Game over.
Penalties ruined the last sequence for UF as two false starts (and a drive-extending facemask vs. Kentucky, to be fair) were called within seven red-zone plays, while Jones was heating up in crunch time. With this in mind, Mullen made good points in regards to the Gators shooting themselves in their own foot.
But Mullen could have put more faith into Jones considering his steady performance on the night, on numerous and especially big-time occasions, and didn't. If the past two weeks and the majority of Saturday night's game taught us anything, it was that Jones could lead drives well with a script tailored to his strengths.
Instead, the lack of trust in Jones played just as much of a role in Florida's loss to Kentucky as the penalties did.
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