By staff writer Robbie Andreu and correspondent Graham Hall
Vanderbilt (3-1, 0-1 SEC) at No. 21 Florida (2-1, 2-0)
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Line: Florida by 8.5.
Series record: Florida leads 38-10-2, including 25 of the last 26 in the series.
For now, Del Rio the starter
It’s been nearly a year since quarterback Luke Del Rio (pictured above) last started for Florida, but that’s expected to change today against Vanderbilt. Del Rio, who led the Gators back from a 13-point deficit to secure Florida’s first fourth-quarter comeback since Nov. 1, 2015, will get the start against the Commodores, coach Jim McElwain said Monday. Del Rio entered the game against the Wildcats and completed nine of 14 passes for 74 yards, including the decisive touchdown to Freddie Swain with 43 seconds remaining. However, the Gators will continue to regulate the position on a week-by-week basis. “And it’s not to say Feleipe won’t start again,” McElwain said, adding that Del Rio “came in and gave us that boost” against Kentucky.
Freshman leading the backfield
He may have only arrived right before preseason camp, but Gators freshman running back Malik Davis already looks like a potential starter. While seeing increased action in each game this season, Davis leads all Gators in rushing with 195 yards on 26 carries. McElwain said Davis’ role will only increase, and he expects him to get “a ton” of work against Vanderbilt. And it could be another breakout game for Davis, considering the Commodores defense has given up 805 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground this season. Asked if he’s surprised by Davis’ early progression, McElwain said he was confident this was the player they had recruited. “We expect that from all of our guys. That’s why we recruit them. We’ve got faith in them. We’re not afraid to play them.”
Webb remains dangerous
Florida’s defense will be keyed in on one player for much of today’s contest. Ralph Webb, a Gainesville native and former star at Gainesville High, has had UF’s number throughout his career, despite being unable to come away with a victory over UF. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Webb ran for 83 yards against Florida, and he was just getting started. He racked up 118 yards and a rushing touchdown in the Gators’ narrow 9-7 win in 2015, and his 110 rushing yards in 2016 nearly propelled Vanderbilt to the home upset. Although he has yet to get going this season, Webb, who already ranks as Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher, remains a home-run threat on offense. “Ralph Webb will come in here and he’s run all over us for two years. He plays with a little extra juice,” McElwain said. “Obviously his hometown, you know I think two years ago he ran all the way home, had lunch, came back and did it again. That’s a guy we got to stop.”
Offense the key to defensive depth?
David Reese leads all Gators in tackles with 33, and he has an interception to boot. But it’s the depth of the linebacker unit that remains a concern for the Gators. Against Kentucky, sophomore linebacker Vosean Joseph committed two 15-yard personal foul penalties on one play, including a targeting call that led to his ejection. With Kylan Johnson yet to contribute consistently for the Gators, it’s become imperative for Florida’s reserve linebackers to play expanded roles. To supplement their chances of successful play, McElwain knows the offense needs to stay on the field longer. “Obviously the linebackers have taken some hits, but we knew that going in. We knew we were going to be in that situation and would need some guys to step up,” he said, “but at the same time, what you have to do is you’ve got to start to win a little bit of time of possession and get them off the field.”
This is a Florida team that certainly is keeping things interesting — and scary — for its fans with these cliffhanger games where defeat seems imminent, but then the Gators find a way to pull out a victory in the end. The past two games have been decided on the final play, which is obviously rare. There was the buzzer-beater in the Tennessee game — the 63-yard TD pass from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland. Then there was the 57-yard field goal attempt that fell short at the horn by Kentucky last Saturday in Lexington. Given UF’s recent history with the Commodores, this will be a close and competitive game today. But close has been a good thing for the Gators, not just in the past two games, but in the two-plus seasons Jim McElwain has been here. Ten of UF’s last 30 games have been decided by one score. The Gators are 9-1 in those games.
Forget 59-0, remember 13-6 and 9-7
Earlier this week, the Gators watched tape of Vanderbilt’s 59-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama last Saturday. That may or may not be a good thing. Maybe it would have been time better spent if they’d gone back and watched the tape of their last two games with the Commodores instead. Because the Vanderbilt that Florida gets today probably won’t be the same one that got blown out a week ago. It likely will be more like the Vanderbilt the Gators have faced the past two seasons. Both of those games were a huge struggle. Florida won 13-6 last year in Nashville, the year before that, the Gators were fortunate to escape with a 9-7 win in The Swamp. So, the Gators would be wise to remember those games and forget that 59-0 score. “For the last two years they’ve played us tough and played us hard,” junior offensive tackle Martez Ivey said. “People say, ‘Vandy, it’s just Vandy,’ but they come out and play. They play with a chip on their shoulder.”
Can’t stop the whiffing
Maybe the Florida defense should just stop working on tackling in practice. Because focusing on it every week does not seem to be working. For a second straight game last week in Lexington, the Gators hurt themselves with missed and broken tackles. That came after UF put an emphasis on tackling in practice coming off the Tennessee game, where tackling was atrocious at times, especially in the fourth quarter. The harder the Gators work, the worse they seem to get. McElwain said part of the problem is the Gators are going for the big hits instead of just relying on fundamentals and wrapping up ball carriers. UF hit the restart button again in practice this week and will try to transfer their hard work from there to The Swamp.
Today’s game questions
• UF’s defense was porous at times against Kentucky. Will the Gators shore things up for Vanderbilt?
• Will Vandy tailback Ralph Webb, the school’s all-time leading rusher, run for 100 yards?
• The UF offense seems to be improving in the running game. Will that trend continue?
• The Gators have averaged only 11 points a game against Vanderbilt the past two seasons. Will they beat that average?
• Will the Gators generate some explosive plays on offense with Luke Del Rio at quarterback?
See Sunday’s sports section for Andreu’s answers
Florida 28, Vanderbilt 10
Florida run defense vs. Vanderbilt tailback Ralph Webb:
From the Florida perspective, this matchup is a little bit scary for two reasons. One, Webb is a former Gainesville High star who was overlooked by the Gators in recruiting and obviously plays his hardest and runs his hardest in this game every year. Two, Vandy’s all-time leading rusher has gotten off to a slow start this season. Through four games, he’s rushed for only 169 yards on 64 carries and two touchdowns and is averaging just 2.6 yards a carry and 42.2 yards per game. What that probably signals is that Webb is due to break out, and what better time to do it than in his hometown against the team that snubbed him coming out of high school. The senior will be going against a Florida run defense that has been really good at times, and really suspect at other times. The Gators, who are traditionally among the nation’s leaders in run defense, are giving up 172.7 yards a game on the ground, which ranks 85th nationally and ninth in the SEC. Contributing to the poor numbers has been the slew of missed and broken tackles in the last two games. On paper, this appears to be a matchup that favors Webb and the Commodores.