Gators notebook: Mullen assesses run game, injury situation

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun
Florida running back Malik Davis gets in work Saturday against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium.

At the end of his Monday news conference via Zoom, Florida coach Dan Mullen gave away his game plan for Saturday against LSU. 

This came after a barrage of questions from reporters about his running game, or lack thereof. The No. 6 Gators (8-1) rushed for a season-low 19 yards in their 31-19 win at Tennessee. 

“It feels like you’re challenging my ability for us to be able to run the ball,” Mullen said, “so I’m not even going to throw on Saturday. We’re going to run it every play of the game.”

Mullen wasn’t worried about LSU’s Ed Orgeron getting wind of this information. If anything, Coach O is the one who should be scared. 

“I might come out in the wishbone this Saturday,” Mullen said. “That’ll make them think, right there. Ed’s gonna get nervous.”

That’s wishful thinking, of course. 

Florida’s ground game isn’t making anyone nervous this year. The Gators rank 105th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 126.22 yards per game. 

But it’s a moot point for Mullen, who has the No. 1 passing offense in the country (376.7 YPG) and a starting quarterback who leads the nation in touchdown passes (38). 

“If I want to go put our energy into running it, I’m sure we can figure it out,” Mullen said. “We can go spend a lot of time and we can go run the ball. We'll find a way … probably slow the game down, ball control, grind it out. But that doesn't really fit the strength of our team right now when we have success throwing it and matchups all over the field that cause problems for people. So I think it's a lot about what we want to do.

“You go back to the last game, I don't think we really tried to run the ball very much. We missed a couple of blocks. I think our backs each had four or five carries, that’s about it. They were giving us the pass game so we just kind of stuck with the pass game.”

Starting running back Dameon Pierce carried the ball five times for five yards against the Vols, while Nay’Quan Wright had four rushes for two yards and a pair of touches for Malik Davis netted no yards. 

Wide receiver Jacob Copeland was the leading rusher with his 17-yard reverse. Quarterback Kyle Trask attempted 49 passes to UF’s 17 rush attempts, throwing for 433 yards and four touchdowns. 

“If we ran the ball 40 times and didn’t have many yards, that would probably go into the concern area. The fact that we weren't really trying to run it doesn't really throw it into my concern area,” Mullen said. “If we had run it 60 times on Saturday and only thrown for like 120 yards, you’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ We take what they give us.”

Injury report

The Gators were down two safeties at Rocky Top, and that could be the case once again vs. LSU. 

Starter Shawn Davis and his backup at free safety, Rashad Torrence, are both questionable for the game according to Mullen. 

“We’ve got to see how the week goes for those two guys this week,” he said. 

Davis ranks third on the team with 40 tackles in seven starts, while Torrence has appeared in nine games and registered 25 tackles. He started in place of Davis against Tennessee, but was injured on the second play from scrimmage. 

Mullen is hoping to get back wide receiver Trent Whittemore (broken ribs) Saturday. 

“That’d be really good for us, adding depth to the receiving corps and special teams,” Mullen said of Whittemore, who has eight catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. “He’s a significant impact on special teams for us.”

Starting linebacker Jeremiah Moon (foot) is expected to miss his fifth straight game, but Mullen hopes to have him available for the SEC title game against Alabama. 

Moon, who has 14 tackles in four games played, is one of only a handful Florida players who’ve missed multiple games due to injury. 

“Well, it’s helped,” Mullen said of his team’s overall health. “I don’t know if we’ve had 70 scholarship players yet available for a game. It doesn’t feel like it. We’ve had a lot of bumps and bruises, but it’s been beneficial that — knock on wood — we have had very few that are longer-term injuries. 

“They’re more guys missing a couple weeks here or there and able to come back, and then somebody else gets banged up and goes out and they’re missing a couple weeks, but that’s kind of a football season. And this year’s even more unique than other years because of the COVID thrown into it as well.”

Accolades for Gators

Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts, kicker Evan McPherson and cornerback Kaiir Elam were recognized by the National College Football Awards Association on Monday, as semifinalists were named for several prestigious national awards. 

Trask was named a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award and the Maxwell Award, while Pitts collected three semifinalist designations from the Biletnikoff Award, Mackey Award and the Maxwell Award. 

McPherson was named a Lou Groza Award Semifinalist, while Elam was named a Paycom Jim Thorpe Award Semifinalist.

Linebacker Ventrell Miller, meanwhile, was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week on Monday. He recorded a team-high 12 tackles at Tennessee and leads the Gators with 66 tackles this season.