Photo: Rashad Torrence; Credit: Zach Goodall
In the Gators' first game following a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky on the road, Florida made a statement in a 42-0 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores.
While the game was not smooth the entire way, Florida adapted to each roadblock they were faced with and played with more urgency than they had so far this year.
In a much-needed "get-right" game, the Gators got right.
Here are five takeaways from the contest.
Emory Jones Tallies Best Game As Starter
Emory Jones let loose to record a career game for the Gators on Saturday.
Despite a few errant throws that he would like to have back, Jones displayed a heightened sense of decisiveness when determining when to throw the ball and when to tuck and run.
Completing 14 of his 22 pass attempts, Jones notched 273 yards and a career-high four touchdowns through the air to produce in a way that put Florida in a position to win by a large margin, as they should against Vanderbilt.
Having five balls go for 25 yards or more, the missing explosiveness factor was implemented into the UF offense for the first time this season. That showed when they scored three touchdowns in seven minutes to start the second half.
Most importantly, Jones was trusted as the Gators signal-caller to push the ball downfield more frequently, which was evident in the consistent confidence he carried even after the interception.
That's something that will need to continue when Florida faces more difficult opponents in the coming weeks.
The Secondary Shined with Kaiir Elam Out Again
In a game that resulted in zero points on the scoreboard for their opponents, the Florida Gators saw a bright spot come from the secondary.
Last season, the safety room was a liability to the Gators defense. While it still isn't perfect in 2021, it's vastly improved.
Florida was led in tackling by sophomore safety Rashad Torrence, who totaled 15 tackles – almost all of which being emphatic collisions – and 1.5 TFLs on the afternoon. Flying around the field with a purpose, Torrence was a factor on nearly every play for the Gators, whether it was a run or pass.
Making a statement with his speed, physicality and uncanny play recognition – which he cites to be a result of his film study – Torrence was the best player on the field at points against Vanderbilt.
When he wasn't the best player on the field, it was his partner in crime in the safety room, Trey Dean. While Torrence was making plays while roaming around the field, Dean was anchoring down the Commodores receivers, tapping into the coverage skills he showed as a true freshman in 2018.
Accounting for two pass breakups – both being great reads on the quarterback – and an interception that came by being in the right place at the right time, Dean was not to be picked on in the passing game.
With each recording their best game of the season, the duo were game-changers all day long.
Roping in another member of the secondary who exemplified uncanny technique for a freshman, cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. made multiple impact plays as well. Playing in replacement for Kaiir Elam, Marshall has made the most of his increased role in the past three games.
However, the pieces were all put together for the youngster from Miami in week six. Playing in press coverage, Marshall made two plays in nearly identical situations, forcing receivers to the boundary with his physicality to effectively take his man out of the play.
The most impressive part is that Marshall was targeted in the end zone both times, but because he forced his receivers out of bounds, he forced incompletions on the play.
If the secondary continues to rally together to play at this level when Elam returns, Florida's defense will improve to be even stingier in giving up points, proving the facts that last season was an anomaly in the process.
No Malik Davis, No Problem
The third-ranked rushing attack in the NCAA was met with a tall task to account for with their leading rusher from the running back room Malik Davis sidelined.
Except, it wasn't tall at all.
Facing off against an abysmal Vanderbilt rushing defense – ranking 113th in the nation – Florida didn't miss a stride with only Dameon Pierce and Nay'Quan Wright splitting carries. Despite totaling a modest – at least for UF – 181 yards on 34 attempts, UF averaged just over five yards per carry and established the run through eight different ball carriers on the day.
The longest of the day came of the game's first drive when Wright showcased his elusiveness to make defenders miss on his way to a 34-yard carry down to the one-yard line.
If one thing is certain about this Florida team, it's that the running back room is one of the deepest in the country and has the potential to make noise no matter which piece of the puzzle is missing.
No matter who is toting the rock, there is always a chance something special is about to take place.
Florida's defense Was the Definition Bend Don't Break
A shutout is a shutout. But, it didn't come without close calls.
Aided by a questionable ruling to overturn a touchdown catch by Chris Pierce Jr. on fourth down from the two-yard line and three missed field goals from Joseph Bulovas, the Gators were able to force a shutout for the first time since 2019, when they beat Vanderbilt 56-0 in The Swamp.
Totaling 287 yards and three trips to the red zone, the Commodores established a rhythm in the first half, running 50 total plays for 200 total yards.
Frequently finding themselves within striking distance to avoid the shutout, they were unable to capitalize on the opportunities provided by a defense that Mullen deemed as "awful" at halftime, citing tackling issues and third-down struggles.
However, when their back was against the wall, Florida made plays. Namely, they stuffed rushing holes when Vanderbilt was looking to punch the ball in from the one-yard line to ensure that they didn't break.
In the second half, the defense cleaned up in nearly every facet, holding Vandy to just 87 yards on 31 plays, to the pleasure of Mullen.
Dan Mullen's Intensity and Aggression Returned
When in charge of the football program at the University of Florida, you're subject to copious amounts of scrutiny when reality falls short of expectations.
Happening last weekend in a loss to Kentucky, Mullen was viewed as uncharacteristically conservative, untrusting and content with mediocrity. He was out to prove otherwise on Saturday afternoon.
One of the main gripes with Florida in 2021 has been the lack of fervor exuded from the head ball coach thus far.
However, prior to heading into the locker room at the half – while Florida was up 21-0 – Mullen rekindled his competitive intensity on the sideline in a heated discussion with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham after an untimely timeout with Vanderbilt in a goal to go situation.
He continued when voicing his displeasure for the Gators' execution through the first 30 minutes of action. Then, answering two questions with three words during his halftime interview, Mullen looked to create a spark for a team that was going through the motions.
When asked about the message to his quarterbacks, he responded with, "Play better." Then asked how he felt about the UF defense not giving up any points despite the plethora of opportunities for Vandy: "Awful," he said.
Unable to accomplish his goal of lighting a fire underneath his team despite his evident displeasure at the break, he looked to the special teams unit on the first possession out of the half by pulling out an old staple: the fake punt keeper.
It worked against Miami in 2019. Why not against Vanderbilt in 2021?
Taking what was going to be an uneventful three and out for a sputtering offense, Jeremy Crawshaw showed off his speed down the left sideline for a gain of 28 yards. The Gators would go on to match their halftime total in seven minutes.
From there, Florida would cruise to a lopsided victory over the Commodores, but not without animated coaching moments from Mullen.
The competitive spirit that initially won over Gators fans when Mullen arrived in 2018 reared its not-so-ugly head. If Florida looks to progress to play to their full potential as the season rolls on, Mullen needs to bring the same passion to each game.
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