Five storylines to watch in the Florida Gators matchup with the Eastern Washington Eagles
Florida football (2-2, 0-2 SEC) will get an opportunity to regain some confidence and fix some communication issues on Sunday when they host Eastern Washington (noon, SEC Network Plus, ESPN Plus).
There was discussion of cancelling or postponing the game to a later date due to the potential impact of Hurricane Ian within the state. Instead, the game was moved back one day, which will give EWU a safe opportunity to travel across three time zones on Saturday after the storm has passed.
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EWU (1-2, 0-1 Big Sky), an FCS school, has already played one Power Five opponent this season, falling 70-14 at Oregon. Florida is 21-1 in its last 22 meetings against FCS opponents, with the lone loss coming in 2013 against Georgia Southern,
Another FCS school, Samford, gave Florida a scare last season, but the Gators rallied for a 70-52 win.
First-year Florida coach Billy Napier has high respect for the FCS level, having played quarterback at Furman, an FCS school, from 1999-2002.
EWU won an FCS national title in 2010, the same year it installed its signature red turf at its home stadium in Cheney, Wash. The school will get a $750,000 payout for making the trip to Gainesville.
"We got a tremendous amount of respect for the winning culture, and really the history and tradition there," Napier said. "They’ve been a significant player in the FCS playoffs and certainly the Big Sky Conference. We’ve got a ton of respect for the quality football we see on the field."
Here are five storylines to watch for in Sunday's game against EWU.
How Florida adapts to change
With Hurricane Ian ripping through the state this week, the Gators prepared inside their indoor football practice facility. Napier was most concerned about the mindset of about 10-15 players on his roster who had families impacted by the path of the storm.
"Just kind of getting in position as an organization to where we can support their families and help them through what we hope won’t be a difficult thing, but we all know what comes with these storms and these hurricanes," Napier said.
Practice was moved an hour up on Wednesday for players to be able to get back to their dorms and apartments to ride out the brunt of the storm on Thursday and Friday.
"Kids are sometimes more resilient than adults are, to be honest," Napier said. "This group, they enjoy practice, they are competitors."
Napier said there will be some benefit to recovery having an extra day to prepare and rest after a physical SEC game against Tennessee. Also, coming from Louisiana, Napier and his staff have experience preparing for mid-week games in the Sun Belt.
"We played every type of turnaround you could imagine, five days, six days, eight, 10, 17," Napier said. "Heck we've had unbelievable schedules relative to the mid-week TV games. So I think this is normal to come up with a unique schedule. So I don't necessarily think it's going to be any issues here. There may be some advantages in my opinion."
Quarterback Anthony Richardson's consistency
Anthony Richardson is coming off a career-high game throwing the football against Tennessee, with 453 yards passing, including his first two passing TDs of the season. How does Richardson build off that performance on Sunday against EWU?
There should be more opportunities to strike downfield in the passing game if EWU loads up the line scrimmage to stop the run. Can Richardson make EWU's defense pay?
Eastern Washington is traditionally one of the better passing offenses in the Big Sky Conference. The Eagles are averaging 212 yards per game through the air, with quarterback Gunner Talkington throwing for 348 yards and 5 TDs is EWU's season-opening win over Tennessee State.
Safety Trey Dean and linebacker Amari Burney had coverage busts which led to big plays and touchdowns during the Tennessee matchup. Overall, UF's defense allowed Tennessee to pass for 349 yards.
There are some changes in the secondary this week, with true freshman Kamari Wilson making his first career start at safety for Dean, who is injured, and Jaydon Hill replacing Avery Helm as a starting cornerback opposite Jason Marshall Jr.
Overall, Napier said communication on defense showed progress this week and he doesn't intend on simplifying the scheme.
"We're committed to being versatile," Napier said. "We've always been a team that's multiple, that runs a lot, we create a lot of variables for the opponent. Big picture wise we're going to stick with that. We're not far away."
Greasing up the run game
Eastern Washington's defense is giving up 302.7 yards per game on the ground. Florida should be able to find holes in the ground games. The Gators rushed for 141 yards last week against Tennessee, with Richardson (17 carries, 62 yards, 2 rushing TDs) getting back more involved in the ground game.
Florida's 5.51 yards per carry ranks third best in the SEC behind just Ole Miss (5.79 ypc) and Alabama (7.34 ypc).
The crowd at The Swamp
Florida played before crowds ranging from 88,000-90,000 in the The Swamp in its first three games. The Gators will be lucky to play in front of a crowd half as big Sunday in a game against an FCS team that's been rescheduled due to a catastrophic hurricane that has impacted the entire state.
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Florida players will need to summon their own energy rather than feeding off the crowd. The Gators came out flat as a double-digit favorite against USF and needed to rally for a win in the fourth quarter. Florida will need to put the hammer down early against EWU.