Photo: Florida's Brenton Cox Jr. tackles USF's Michel Dukes; Credit: Alex Shepherd
The Florida Gators missed 11 tackles, per Pro Football Focus, and allowed 286 rushing yards en route to a narrow, 31-28 victory over a USF Bulls team that was blown out at home by BYU in Week 1 and struggled to separate from FCS Howard until the second half in Week 2.
It was a showing reminiscent of Florida's inexcusable, 70-52 nail-biter of a win over FCS Samford at home last year. The Gators' troubles with run defense also felt eerily similar to LSU's 321-yard ground game against UF last year in Baton Rouge (La.).
But in head coach Billy Napier's eyes, UF didn't falter against an inferior opponent as much as the inferior opponent (which he would never consider the Bulls to be) elevated into a threatening team on Saturday night.
"Hats off to South Florida," Napier remarked after the win. "We made it hard, but I tell you what — a lot of that had to do with South Florida and their execution.”
Napier credited the Bulls for their offensive showing in particular, applauding the experience of quarterback Gerry Bohanon and other transfers that make up USF's skill positions as well as head coach Jeff Scott and his coaching staff's gameplan.
"They blocked us well, gave us some unique concepts," Napier explained. "I think it was really good design. They involved the quarterback in the read game, some really unique stuff. Some things we hadn't seen on film."
Perhaps UF should have seen Bohanon's run game usage coming? He posted nine rushing touchdowns as Baylor's starting quarterback a year ago and ended the night as USF's second-leading rusher at 102 yards, to go with a 12-of-28 passing line for 116 yards.
It was running back Brian Battie, though, who was the biggest beneficiary of USF's run game success. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound Sarasota (Fla.) native churned out 150 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, his biggest gain of 51 yards being the result of pre-snap shifting and motion by the Bulls' offense that confused Florida's defense on 4th and 1.
The blunders came down to a matter of defensive execution, Napier explained.
"I do think that we’re in good calls. I think it’s more about execution — first, second and third level, being on the same page," Napier said about UF's defensive performance. "I'm pretty confident when you go watch the tape, that you’ll see one player maybe not doing what they were supposed to do.
"When you involve the quarterback in the read game, it causes you to be assignment-sound. There were times we were out of our gap out there."
It became increasingly clear how much UF misses linebacker Ventrell Miller, who is currently nursing a lower-body injury and was inactive on Saturday, as freshman linebackers Scooby Williams and Shemar James at times struggled with gap integrity and alignment in response to shifts. The Gators' front four was also pushed around consistently throughout the game.
Still, Napier was happy that the young linebackers were able to gain necessary experience and make some "critical stops" in Miller's absence. James notably recovered a fumble on USF's first drive.
James' fumble recovery, cornerback Jalen Kimber's second-quarter 39-yard pick-six and nickel corner Tre'Vez Johnson's fourth-quarter interception that set up a lead-recapturing, Trevor Etienne rushing touchdown ultimately kept Florida in the game, Napier noted.
"Credit our defense, they affected the quarterback and we knocked it off of them in the first possession and then we made him throw it to us twice," Napier said. "So, I mean those are takeaways. I think that's a big part of playing good defense."
Turnovers are a double-edged sword, though, and they hurt Florida almost as often as they helped on Saturday night. Quarterback Anthony Richardson had another underwhelming showing with his second two-interception game in a row, and one of his picks led to a USF touchdown that narrowed UF's lead to three points in the third quarter.
Richardson finished the game completing 10-of-18 attempts for 112 yards. He has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season.
Much like his comments after the Kentucky loss, Napier pinned Richardson's interceptions on the quarterback's inexperience, making just his fourth career start.
“You try to keep it technical," Napier said, recalling his conversations with Richardson following turnovers. "I think it’s important that he has the process and that he understands what happened and why it happened. The good thing is, he does.
"He made a lot of good plays out there, but there were plays he made mistakes on, much like every player. I think you just try to create an environment where a guy can learn and can continue to grow and develop as a player. No matter what you say in a practice environment when you make mistakes in a game setting and you have success in a game setting, that becomes more real to you. You live and learn in those experiences."
While Florida, a 24-point favorite entering the matchup, is routinely expected to handle these types of games with relative ease to the talent gap between SEC and American Conference rosters, Napier refused to acknowledge USF as a lesser team to Florida leading up to and after the game.
Instead, Napier considered the Bulls a "high-quality" opponent that made things difficult for the Gators at times.
"I don’t care who they played, or who we played, the Gators played South Florida tonight and we did enough to win," Napier proclaimed. "That’s a credit to our players for sticking together, for competing through the adversity of the game. They made mistakes, we made mistakes. We made enough plays to win."
First-year Gators running back and Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson, whose 103-yard performance played a huge part in UF winning the game, viewed the situation quite differently, however.
"We’ve gotta get better as a team. I don’t think they could play with us, to be honest with you," Johnson stated on Saturday. “I was really surprised.”
Napier shouldn't be expected to do anything but respect Florida's opponents on the mic, but the difference in tone between the head coach and one of the Gators' star players is stark.
It leaves one to wonder, was Florida's second win of Napier's tenure a concerning one when it comes to the team's trajectory, or simply a hard-fought contest by a formidable foe?
The Gators' first road matchup of the season, against No. 11 Tennessee on Saturday, may offer some clarity in hindsight.
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