By Staff writer Robbie Andreu and Correspondent Graham Hall
Who: Florida (3-4, 3-3 SEC) vs. Missouri (3-5, 0-4)
When: 12 p.m. today
Where: Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium, Columbia, Missouri
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Line: Missouri by three
Zaire to start vs. Tigers
Feleipe Franks has started six of Florida’s seven games this season, but interim coach Randy Shannon is ready to make a change. After announcing an open quarterback competition Monday, Shannon said the Gators will start graduate transfer quarterback Malik Zaire on Saturday against the Tigers. Zaire, who entered Florida’s 42-7 loss to Georgia in relief of Franks, completed just 3-of-6 passes for 36 yards against the Bulldogs, but Franks wasn’t any better. “We’re rotating guys. Malik will take a period at 1s, and then the next time we go to another period Feleipe will take one,” Shannon said of the quarterback competition in practice. “You see those guys compete, talking and communicating. The best thing about it is when you compete every day it brings the best out of you.” Zaire will be the third UF quarterback to start a game this season, marking the second time in five years that the Gators have started three quarterbacks in a lone season.
Florida looking for ways to stretch field
When Zaire makes his first start at quarterback this season, he’ll have a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Sophomore wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland, Florida’s biggest threat downfield, is fully healed from the ankle injury that’s kept him out for nearly a month, UF interim coach Randy Shannon said Wednesday. Shannon added the Gators will look to stretch the field against Missouri’s pass defense, which enters the contest ranked second-to-last in the SEC in defending the pass. “He’s bouncing around, didn’t miss a rep in practice yesterday. We’re excited to have him back because we have a chance for us to throw some balls downfield and see if we can make some plays,” Shannon said. “We have to make sure there are devised things that we get the ball in those guys hands, run the ball, and take some shots downtown with Tyrie, because he’s 100 percent healthy. We’re excited about that.”
Shannon looking to join good company
Randy Shannon is more than a decade removed from when he began his head coaching tenure at Miami, and now he faces another tall task: turning around Florida’s 2017 season. Shannon is Florida’s fifth interim head coach since 1984, and he’s looking to continue the trend of success under UF interim head coaches. The Gators have a 12-5 record under interim head coaches, but Shannon will be the first UF interim head coach since Gary Darnell in 1989 to coach Florida in a regular-season contest when the Gators take the field Saturday.
Perine, Thompson to carry load
Malik Davis suffered a brutal season-ending injury early in Florida’s 42-7 loss to Georgia, ending a freshman season that was on pace to set several UF freshman rushing records. Now, the Gators will seek to push their streak of more than 165 rushing yards to seven consecutive games without their freshman standout in the backfield. Fortunately for Florida, sophomore running back Lamical Perine has been a workhorse himself this season. After having just a lone touchdown as a freshman, Perine has six touchdowns on the ground this season and he’s on pace to top his rushing total from his debut season in Gainesville. The Gators will look to Perine and backup Mark Thompson to expose a Missouri defense that has allowed opponents on average 192.4 rushing yards per game this season.
Out of their league
Quarterback Drew Lock and the Missouri offense have piled up some huge scores and numbers this season. But, they are somewhat deceiving. What the Tigers have produced against SEC teams is much less than what they’ve done against a weak non-conference schedule. So, let’s break it down to get a better idea what the Florida defense is really up against today. Against four non-conference opponents, the Tigers have averaged 564.7 total yards and 384.5 passing yards a game. But against four SEC foes (South Carolina, Auburn, Kentucky and Georgia), the Tigers have averaged only 410.7 total yards and 237.0 passing yards. And there’s a big discrepancy in points. Missouri has averaged 48.7 points in non-conference games and only 22.2 in SEC games. And against their only decent non-conference foe (Purdue), the Tigers were held to 3 points in a 35-3 loss in Columbia. So, while the overall numbers are pretty intimidating, this offense isn’t nearly as potent as it looks on the overall stat sheet. The numbers, however, certainly have the Gators’ attention.
As usual, Tigers strong up front
While the Missouri offense has been shorting out the scoreboard lights, it’s been a season-long struggle for the Tigers on defense. They simply haven’t been able to stop anybody other than an impotent UConn offense that managed to score only 12 points a week ago. The critical question is, are the Gators capable enough on offense to take advantage of a defense has been having weekly meltdowns? Over the past several seasons, Florida’s lack of offense has helped make several poor defenses feel pretty good about themselves. To have any chance to take advantage of the porous Tigers, the UF front is going to have to contain a Mizzou front that is playing close to the high standards of recent Tiger defensive lines that have sent multiple players to the NFL. Nose tackle Terry Beckner Jr. and end Marcell Frazier are disruptive and can be dominant at times. If the Gators can’t prevent them from making big plays and sacks, it will be another long day for this staggering offense.
From ‘Cane to Gator
For most of his football life, the Gators have been his enemy. Now, through a set of unforeseen circumstances, Randy Shannon finds himself leading the Florida program as the interim head coach. It may seem an odd fit to some in south Florida, but Shannon is comfortable with it. “It doesn’t change me. It’s football, you coach and you’re having fun,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of people from south Florida reach out to me that were good friends of mine, lot of University of Miami friends, a lot of Florida State alumnus. Me being at the University of Florida, when I first got here, it was the welcoming and family atmosphere that was positive about it, and still is. They want the best that they can get, and you have to accept the challenge to give them what they want. And that’s just the challenge of everything.”
Today’s game questions
• How will Florida’s young secondary hold up against quarterback Drew Lock and an explosive Missouri passing game?
• Will the Gators play looser and with more confidence under interim head coach Randy Shannon.
• Can senior running back Mark Thompson finally have a breakthrough performance for the Gators?
• Will the Gators have any success throwing the ball downfield?
• UF has worked hard on special teams this week. Will it be noticeable today?
See Sunday’s sports section for Andreu’s answers
Missouri 31, Florida 17
Florida’s young secondary vs. quarterback Drew Lock and the Missouri passing game:
The Florida secondary will be facing a much different Lock today than the one they encountered in The Swamp a year ago. Conversely, Lock will be facing a much different Florida secondary. Lock was a struggling sophomore midway through last season when he collided with a UF secondary that featured three future NFL draft picks (Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye). The results were not good for Lock. He completed only four of 18 passes, had two pick-sixes and threw for only 39 yards. Today, the Gators will be seeing a confident, experienced and polished junior who has been lighting it up big-time in the passing game. And he will be going against a young secondary that features only one senior and a bunch of true freshmen and sophomores. That young secondary, which really wasn’t tested by ground-happy Georgia a week ago, has held its own at times. Other times, the Gators have been susceptible in the back end. To slow down the Tigers’ big-play passing game, the young guys are going to have to cover well and minimize mistakes against a QB who definitely knows how to take advantage of inexperience.