The Gators got off to a winning start in 2021 with a 35-14 victory over Florida Atlantic Saturday night. Despite the score, the result was not overly convincing to a lot of Gator fans. Quarterback Emory Jones struggled to move the ball through the air, throwing for just 113 yards and adding two very poor interceptions.
As a result, the Gators failed to put up more than 40 points against a non-Power Five opponent for just the second time under Dan Mullen. With a fanbase that loves to see offense, and is used to airing the ball out after last season, it is understandable to have not come away impressed.
There are always a ton of first impressions to be made in the season opener, and there was a good mix of good and bad for the Gators on Saturday. While the QB situation will be heavily discussed moving forward, there was plenty to focus on elsewhere.
Having been at the game, here are the five main takeaways I had from my (somewhat obstructed) vantage point in the student section.
Malik Davis Looks Like the Guy
It has been a rollercoaster for Malik Davis at Florida. The highly-touted running back prospect came in under Jim McElwain in 2017 and suffered season-ending injuries in both of his first two seasons in Gainesville. The past two seasons have seen mixed playing time and inconsistent play.
That is why Saturday came as such a welcome sight for Gator fans. Davis was the feature back for Florida, his 14 carries were the most of any Gator, and looked dynamic and effective. His 107 yards were good for 7.4 yards-per-carry and he added a touchdown to go along with it.
On the first drive of the game, Davis broke loose on an outside zone, turning the corner past a few FAU defenders, then going up the sidelines, cutting inside and gaining 31 yards on the play. His touchdown came in a power formation from the goal line, and he showed his ability to run between the tackles as well.
The Florida running game with Jones at QB was extremely effective, and their 400 yards on the ground were the most ever in a season opener. Their dynamic running backs room will need a lead man to lean on throughout the season, and Davis made a really good case to be that guy on Saturday.
Offensive Line Leads The Way
One of the biggest question marks for the Gators coming into the season was how their offensive line would fare. It has been a talking point among Gator fans since Mullen has arrived in Gainesville, and always seems to be a weakness for the team.
They passed the first test last night by dominating an FAU defensive front that they are supposed to. Obviously, the Gators simply have better athletes than FAU and they should have dominated them up front, but in the past that has not always been the case.
To see them win a game up front should be a very encouraging sign for Gator fans.
The Gators’ offensive line did not allow a sack all night - something they did just once last season - and only four tackles for loss. Gator quarterbacks were barely even touched last night, as they allowed no hits and just two pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
The big test for the offensive line comes in two weeks when Alabama comes to town, but it was an encouraging start for the offensive line. They will need to be far improved if the offense is going to be centered around the running game.
Defensive Line Sets The Pace
The Gators dominated up front on the other side of the ball even more than they did on offense. It may need to be taken with a grain of salt, but was just as encouraging--if not more--than the offensive line’s performance.
The defensive line was expected to be the strength of this team and it showed why last night. The front four set the pace of the game by dominating up front and barely allowing Owls QB N’Kosi Perry any chance to get a rhythm throwing the ball.
The Gators had six sacks on the evening, and three of them were recorded by defensive lineman Zachary Carter. The senior has been hyped up all offseason as a difference-maker on the defensive line, and he delivered on that to start the year. To go along with his three sacks, Carter forced a fumble by Perry that was recovered by Gervon Dexter.
The Gators allowed just 92 yards on the ground, and no FAU rusher went for over 52 yards. It was a drastic shift from the defense we saw in 2020 when teams averaged 170.5 rushing yards per game on the Florida defense.
Despite allowing two touchdowns, they both came late in the game when there was a lot of rotation going on. Even when the offense was not pulling away, the defense never let FAU have a chance of sneaking into the game.
Xzavier Henderson Looks Comfortable On Punt Returns
Who would return kicks and punts was an unknown coming into the season. Head coach Dan Mullen has never been shy to use some of his top guys on special teams, especially on returns.
Wide receiver Xzavier Henderson was the one fielding punts on Saturday, and he looked extremely comfortable. Henderson had 50 yards on the three returns, an average of 16.7 yards, including a big 33-yard return.
Henderson caught the ball smoothly under pressure, had a lane between two FAU gunners, and accelerated quickly before making a couple of guys miss making it into Owl territory.
He also looked very calm fielding one on the backpedal, and had another nice return in which he went backward at first, made a couple of guys miss, and managed to pick up a good chunk of yards.
Henderson should only get more comfortable as a returner as the season goes on, and the overall first impression was very positive. If he can continue to look that way on punt returns going forward, he will be a very effective weapon in the field position game for Florida.
The Swamp Is Back
It was pretty clear that Gator fans missed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after limited capacity crowds in 2020 kept a lot of them away. The attendance at The Swamp on Saturday was over 86,000 -a n extremely impressive number for a home opener.
Students have gotten a bad rap for not showing up over the past few seasons, but they showed out in force and they showed up early as well. The student section was nearly full when I got into the game as the teams were coming out of the tunnel.
Gator fans seem hungry to be back and for a big season after their success in 2020. The crowd was loud, into the game and probably the fullest - and the rowdiest - crowd I have seen in an early-season home game.
The Swamp has always been an advantage for the Gators and they definitely missed the energy of the crowd last year. With Alabama - fresh off of a 44-13 win against Miami - coming to town in a couple of weeks, the Gators will need every bit of that home-field advantage to beat the Crimson Tide.
If that is a preview of the energy that will be in The Swamp the rest of the season, the Gators will be very tough to beat at home.