After another rough start defensively, the Florida Gators were able to sharpen up as their annual contest with the South Carolina Gamecocks went on.
As expected, Florida's offense came out firing, scoring four times on its first five drives. Tight end Kyle Pitts had himself yet another day, setting a new career-high in season-long touchdown receptions with six through just two games, scoring twice on Saturday. For the most part, quarterback Kyle Trask performed well, completing 21-of-29 passes for 268 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
Saturday posed some questions, however: Is Florida's defense potentially detrimental to its eventual playoff hopes? Is Florida's offense human, as in, not perfect? Why isn't Dameon Pierce getting more carries?
But enough basic recapping—we've done that already. Let's try to answer those questions, or at least better understand them, with our major takeaways from today's game.
Florida's offense is human, but one of the best in the nation
Today's game proved that Florida's offense isn't going to consistently put up 600+ yards and 50+ touchdowns as it did at Ole Miss. That's fine, no one is going to expect that—nor will anyone be disappointed—because the Gators are still explosive and sound moving the ball, especially through the air.
They were easy opponents, but at the end of the day, Trask is completing nearly 75% of his passes against SEC defenses, spreading the ball around at will (more on that later). Against the Gamecocks, Trask averaged 9.2 yards per throwing attempt, with four passes going for over 20 yards at the end of the play. He also found his favorite target, Pitts, for two first-half touchdowns, the second tying the record for career touchdown catches by a tight end in Florida history.
Coach Dan Mullen said that the offense didn't live up to par, due to two turnovers on South Carolina's side of the field and three-and-outs. However, Mullen made note that Florida ran only 53 plays today, compared to South Carolina's 83, making the 38-point outing impressive regardless. The Gators averaged 6.6 yards per play on the day.
Florida can make the case for the nation's most dangerous passing offense right now and has a solid running game to pair when Mullen decides to utilize it. They'll make mistakes, but Florida will be a contender this year based on their offense alone.
Dameon Pierce is Florida's best RB. Why doesn't he get the ball more?
Leading the team for the second week in a row with nine carries, running back Dameon Pierce was Florida's top rusher again and appears to be the Gators' most effective back. Each of Pierce's runs today went for positive yardage, while only one rush a week ago was stopped behind the line for a loss of one. He finished Week 2 with nine carries, 51 yards and a touchdown.
Pierce has been a part of a committee this season that head coach Dan Mullen has said he intends to continue using, getting Pierce, Malik Davis, and even Nay'Quan Wright some touches along the way. Davis has been flashy as well, but he managed just nine yards on four carries this week after a much more impressive showing a week ago. Wright, meanwhile, is clearly third in the pecking order.
With that, it's odd that Pierce isn't getting more action, especially when Florida had two and three-score leads. Pierce obtained just two carries in the third quarter while Florida consistently held a multi-score lead. Head coach Dan Mullen talked about the Gators running only 53 plays against the Gamecocks on Saturday, which perhaps could have been turned into more by trusting the run and keeping the defense on the field.
Young receivers will get their share
Trent Whittemore, a Gainesville native, caught his first college touchdown Saturday and has begun to fill in nicely within Florida's wide receiver rotation. The redshirt freshman—a big slot receiver at 6-foot-4, 208 pounds—made a 26-yard highlight-grab in double coverage that caught everyone's attention before getting into the endzone shortly after.
"I praise the Lord I was able to come down with it," Whittemore said after the game. "I just credit Kyle [Trask] for a great throw, putting it in a spot where it was going to me or nobody."
Whittemore's usage through two games—five catches for 56 yards—along with Xzavier Henderson earning two catches and multiple targets indicate just how spread out this passing game is, and how deep the Gators are at wide receiver. Trask completed passes to nine different receivers today, after connecting with 11 against Ole Miss.
Florida has three senior receivers, a redshirt sophomore with ample playing time under his belt and a Penn State transfer in the room to pair with Whittemore, Henderson, and several other redshirt and true freshmen—yet these two have already emerged two games into the year. Who's next?
This defense is bad...
It wasn't a fluke last week: Florida's defense is far from good. It might, even, be bad.
No one believed that South Carolina would post the same offensive production that Ole Miss did in Week 1, and while it didn't, it gave Florida fits throughout the day. Finishing with 329 yards as a unit—19 less than UF—the Gamecocks were nearly able to replicate the Rebels' scoring by marching down the field with ease at points. Early chunk plays also had the Gamecocks looking competitive to start the game.
There were times where the unit came together and made stops or slowed the Gamecocks' roll. As South Carolina looked to mount a comeback down two scores with the ball and over eight minutes left in the game, Florida stalled the Gamecocks to a 7:23-minute drive that ended in a turnover on downs—an example of the good signs.
Linebacker Amari Burney, cornerback Marco Wilson, and safety Donovan Stiner looked like replacement-level defenders throughout the day. Burney allowed an easy, short touchdown pass that made the game closer than it needed to be in the fourth quarter while also struggling to make tackles as the game went on. Wilson played shy as he primarily shadowed slot receiver Shi Smith, who was the Gamecocks' leading receiver with 12 catches for 85 yards. Wilson was injured on Florida's final defensive stand and replaced by freshman Tre'Vez Johnson.
The defensive line also struggled immensely setting the edge against the run, perhaps in part due to the alignment. Two big defensive tackles take over the middle of the trenches in Zachary Carter and TJ Slaton, in the starting rotation at least, but the combination of weak-side molds on both edges in Brenton Cox Jr., Khris Bogle, and Jeremiah Moon leaves cause for concern in run defense at this point.
Florida has issues on all three levels of its defense. That much is clear through two weeks, and with back-to-back ranked opponents up next, at Texas A&M and at home against LSU, those issues will need to be cleaned up quickly in order to avoid upset losses.
...but there are some good defenders
Cornerback Kaiir Elam had a strong day on the outside, tallying eight tackles and two defended passes. Whether it was in coverage or run support, Elam could be trusted throughout the day, which few members of the defense could say from start to finish.
Safety Shawn Davis returned to the field after being ejected for targeting last week, which was certainly a big help. Davis had a clutch pass breakup in the endzone as Carolina pushed to narrow the lead, which they did several plays later regardless thanks to the touchdown Burney gave up. Davis also had eight tackles.
Zachary Carter is also proving to be one of if not Florida's most disruptive lineman. Carter, too, had eight tackles today, while also posting 1.5 sacks, leading what was otherwise a disappointing pass rush for most of the day. Carter had a good day Saturday, but he isn't going to be one to typically blow up the box score. Rather, he creates plenty of pressure along the interior to fluster quarterbacks and set his teammates up to make plays.