The No. 17 Florida Gators walked into AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Saturday hoping to make a statement in their 2017 season opener.
Instead, Jim McElwain and Co. left with a 33-17 loss to No. 11 Michigan.
There were highlights. There were struggles. And there were some moments that made fans scratch their heads. Here’s a closer look at some of the plays and tendencies that defined the game.
Let’s start with the positives.
Both of Florida’s touchdowns came on back-to-back interceptions returned for touchdowns in the second quarter. The pick-sixes gave the Gators a slight respite after Florida’s first three offensive drives resulted in just three points.
First it was Duke Dawson. The senior cornerback intercepted a deflected pass near midfield and then immediately cut to his right. He rerouted toward the middle of the field and then weaved past a pair of Michigan defenders before racing back to the sideline. A key block from defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson allowed Dawson to scamper into the end zone for his third career pick-six — one shy of the Florida school record.
PICK. SIX. @GatorsFB!!
Duke Dawson to the pic.twitter.com/TdHaaSp0u1
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 2, 2017
Less than 90 seconds later, C.J. Henderson joined in on the fun. On third-and-7, the freshman picked off an overthrown pass down the left sideline from Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight and ran 41 yards untouched into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
Coincidentally, Henderson is the first Florida freshman to return an interception for a touchdown in a season opener since Dawson, who did so against Eastern Michigan in 2014.
Another one. pic.twitter.com/0SIDkuDy7A
— ESPN (@espn) September 2, 2017
The defensive line
From a pass rushing perspective, Florida’s defensive line had a pretty successful night. The Gators tallied 5 sacks overall, with redshirt senior Jordan Sherit (photo, right) leading the way with two sacks and 2 quarterback hurries. Jefferson, redshirt junior Taven Bryan and sophomore Jachai Polite each also recorded a sack, while Jabari Zuniga helped out with a pair of QB hurries as well.
The Gators seemed to constantly be in Michigan’s backfield on passing downs and used their speed to get past the Wolverines’ offensive line, especially on the right side.
From a run-stopping perspective, the Gators have a long way to go. Remove the 5 sacks — which counted for minus-22 rushing yards — and Michigan had 237 rushing yards on 44 carries. That’s 5.4 yards per rush. Some of it was missed tackles. Botched assignments factored into it, as well. Either way, Florida will need to clean it up before facing some of the top running backs in the SEC later this season (i.e. Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb, LSU’s Derrius Guice, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel).
Florida’s defense did the heavy lifting when it came to putting points on the board against Michigan.
The offense kept giving Michigan opportunities to stick around, with costly turnovers late in the game.
The Gators lost three fumbles — all in the second half — and that led to Michigan’s final 13 points.
First, Tyrie Cleveland fumbled on a kickoff return in the third quarter that allowed the Wolverines to start at Florida’s 16-yard line. The Gators defense forced a three-and-out that resulted in a Quinn Nordin 30-yard field goal.
On the next possession, quarterback Feleipe Franks fumbled on a scramble attempt that allowed Michigan to recover and start a second drive in Gators territory. Another three-and-out by the defense limited the damage to a Nordin 50-yard field goal, but now the Wolverines were up 26-17 with just under 9 minutes left to play. McElwain replaced Franks for graduate transfer Malik Zaire after that play, hoping to find a spark for the offense.
After four stalled drives that resulted in three punts and a turnover on downs, Zaire found himself starting a drive on the Florida 11. A sack on first down set up second and 18 from the 3. On the very next play, standing in shotgun formation in his own end zone, Zaire was strip-sacked by Michigan’s Chase Winovich. Michigan linebacker Noah Furbush fell on top of the ball for a touchdown to close out scoring.
The offensive line
Outside of the quarterback competition, one of the main storylines of Florida’s offseason was the new and improved offensive line. McElwain called it the strength of the team on multiple occasions.
But when it came time for the offensive line to prove itself on Saturday, it fell flat.
Florida’s big men up front failed to get leverage on Michigan’s defensive line, and the offense suffered as a result. The quick summation:
- 6 sacks for a combined 35 yards lost.
- 4 additional quarterback hurries allowed.
- 11 rushing yards on 27 carries for a 0.4 yards-per-rush average.
- The longest rush not on a quarterback scramble was an 8-yard scamper by freshman Malik Davis. It was his only carry of the game.
The Gators won’t be able to survive the season if the offensive line continues to produce like it did against Michigan.
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