Florida football: 5 storylines for the Gators in Saturday's game with the Texas A&M Aggies
Something has to give when the Florida Gators face the Texas A&M Aggies on Saturday at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas.
The Gators (4-4, 1-4 SEC) have lost two straight and are seeking their first win in close to a month. The last victory came on Oct. 9, when they held off Missouri 24-17 in a game decided with a defensive stop late in the fourth quarter.
A tumultuous week for Florida began with head coach Billy Napier kicking defensive lineman Brenton Cox Jr. off the team for an accumulation of issues.
"Adversity sometimes gives you an opportunity to prove what you’re made of. It can help you refine and develop your character," Napier said. "So, just really challenging our guys to be the best teammate they can be, to do all the little things right."
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Texas A&M (3-5, 1-4 SEC) is dealing with its own issues under fifth-year coach Jimbo Fisher. The Aggies have lost four straight games, their longest losing streak since 2005.
Two weeks ago, Fisher suspended three players from his heralded 2022 recruiting class for a locker room incident. Fisher is starting to play those true freshmen more in an attempt to salvage the season, including at quarterback, where Conner Weigman threw for four TD passes in his first career start last week against Ole Miss.
"Rookies can impact your team," Napier said. "There’s no question they evaluated well, they recruited well. Those players, they were midyear players, and they’ve made the most of the competition there and they’ve got a role on their team, for sure.”
Here's a look at five storylines entering the matchup on Saturday:
Establishing the run important for UF
Florida enters the Texas A&M matchup third in FBS in yards per carry (5.9 ypg). But UF's run game was stymied last week against Georgia, held to a season-low 100 yards rushing on 2.9 yards per rush.
It will be important for the Gators to re-establish the ground game against a Texas A&M team that ranks next to last in the SEC in rushing defense (205.6 ypg allowed). Ole Miss rushed for 390 yards against the Aggies last week in its 31-28 win at Kyle Field.
Look for the Gators to try to establish running backs Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne early. Quarterback Anthony Richardson showed he was a more willing runner with 11 caries for a net gain of 48 yards last week against Georgia and could factor into the run game as well.
"It’s always important in our formula to have the ability to have balance," Napier said. "I think we want to be able to rush the ball in the game and we want to be able to throw the ball well in the game. I think each week is a little bit different relative to the matchups."
Road routine on UF's longest trip of season
Florida will play in its second true road game on Saturday. It will be the longest road trip of the season for the Gators, who will travel 932 miles and cross one time zone for an 11 a.m. local time start.
Florida is 0-1 on the road this season with a 38-33 loss at now No. 1 Tennessee. A young Gator team will need to prepare properly both physically and mentally for the matchup.
"Success on the road, it comes down to being a practice player," Florida wide receiver Xzavier Henderson said. "Taking every rep in practice like it's a game rep and taking it one play at a time, one catch at a time, one day at a time."
Florida is 2-1 against Texas A&M on the road, with its last win coming at Kyle Field in 2012, when the Gators beat the Johnny Manziel-led Aggies 20-17. In 2020, the Gators lost 41-38 at Texas A&M before a crowd of 24,709 that was still loud despite being limited due to COVID-19 protocols.
A far bigger crowd in the neighborhood of 100,000 is expected on Saturday.
"It's really loud and hostile," said Florida defensive lineman Princely Umanmielen, who is from Manor City, Texas and was recruited by Texas A&M.
Florida's defense has struggled mightily in Napier's first season. But the Gators have shown an ability to generate turnovers. Florida has forced 14 takeaways and its turnover margin of plus-4 is tied for third in the SEC, behind only Vanderbilt (plus-5) and Tennessee (plus-8).
Of Florida's eight interceptions, two have been returned for touchdowns. The Gators will look to try to pressure Weigman, making his second career start, into that kind of mistake.
Limiting A&M's Devon Achane
Junior running back Devon Achane is the most dangerous playmaker on Texas A&M's roster with 765 yards rushing on 5.4 yards per carry, 2 receiving TDs and one kickoff return for a TD.
With sprinter's speed, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Achane is capable of making game-changing plays.
Florida needs to be mindful of where Achane is on the field at all times and also limit his effectiveness in the return game.
"When you talk about defending this group, he’s certainly at the top of that list," Napier said. "He plays the majority of the game. He’s got elite track – Olympic track speed – so it’s a big part of the puzzle here when you start talking about defending this group ... certainly the strategy relative to covering the kicks is part of that.”
Getting off to a better start on offense
Florida went three-and-out on offense in its first three possessions against No. 1 Georgia, a big factor in the Gators falling behind 28-3 last Saturday.
Texas A&M isn't as formidable as Georgia defensively, but Florida could help itself by putting points on the board early and taking the crowd out of the game.
The Aggies could have their will broke early if they fall behind.
“Analytics would tell you that starting fast is extremely important at any level of football," Napier said. "Getting off to a quick start relative to any momentum in the game, really just a fast start in general. It’s always been a point of emphasis for us and certainly when you go play on the road, I think it’s even more imperative.”