Florida Gators defense shows how patience will pay off in win vs. Texas A&M

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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The defense saved the day.

Now there are some words you probably never thought you’d read. At least not anytime soon when it came to Florida.

Frankly, I thought I’d type “Biden endorses DeSantis” or “Kanye becomes rabbi” before the Gators' defense materialized. But a strange and instructive thing happened Saturday on the way to Patrick Toney being run out of Gainesville.

Florida’s defense made tackles, covered receivers, caused turnovers, racked up some sacks, made third-down stops — repeat, made third-down stops — made crucial plays and did all those other things good defenses are supposed to do.

The end result was a promising win for a team that really needed one. Florida 41, Texas A&M 24.

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We’ll pause now to allow Aggie boosters to pass around the 50-gallon cowboy hat in hopes they can buy out Jimbo Fisher.

Texas A&M needed a victory worse than the Gators, who hadn’t won an SEC road game since the pandemic season of 2020. That’s one reason why Billy Napier was on the sideline in College Station Saturday instead of Dan Mullen.

Texas A&M running back Devon Achane tries to run the ball against the Florida defense Saturday in College Station, Texas.

Napier’s first season has hit turbulence lately. There were one-sided losses to LSU and Georgia. Brenton Cox Jr. was kicked off the team last week. Five-star prospect Cormani McClain committed to Miami.

Nobody expected an SEC East title this year, but fans were getting a little anxious.  A “work in progress” is fine, but there needs to be actual progress for it to sell.

We saw some from the start Saturday with the offense. Anthony Richardson was back in Heisman mode.

“This is one of those days that is a pivotal day,” Napier said of his QB project.

We’ve heard that before, only to watch AR’s bad habits flare the next time out. We may see that again against South Carolina. But Saturday’s tour de force reminded everyone why it’s worth being extra patient with Richardson.

Speaking of which, how about Florida’s defense?

Gators defense plays well against struggling offense

It allowed a measly 106 yards, limited the Aggies to an average of 2.9 yards a play and stopped them on seven of eight third-down attempts.

Sure, those are just the second-half stats. I’d give you A&M’s first-half numbers, but they are too gargantuan to fit on anything smaller than a billboard.

What made it worse was the Aggies came in averaging an SEC-worst 22.9 points a game. Fisher’s inability to develop an offense that could score against a south Texas breeze is why those boosters might be scrambling to collect $86 million for Fisher’s golden parachute.

And the squad he put out there Saturday was worse than usual. Flu sidelined a half-dozen contributors, including quarterback Conner Weigman.

Next up: Locusts invade Jimbo’s office.

But that’s A&M’s problem. Florida fans had enough to fret over in the first half.

It was so bad, the words “Patrick Toney” were trending on Twitter. Among the comments about UF’s defensive coordinator:

“We couldn’t stop A&M if we had 15 guys on defense. Patrick Toney is stealing paychecks.”

“Leave it to Patrick Toney to be the only d coordinator in America that can make Jimbo Fisher and this offense look good.”

“Patrick Toney I hate you.”

Maybe Elon Musk needs to rethink censoring some tweeters. That last guy should at least send Toney an early Valentine’s Day card after the second-half resurrection.

“Ultimately, when adversity is presented to you, it gives you an opportunity to prove what you’re made of,” Napier said.

Adversity came when Adam Mihalek missed a 28-yard field goal at the start of the fourth quarter. Instead of falling behind by 13 points, the Aggies and Kyle Field began to stir.

A&M drove to Florida’s 27-yard line, where Princely Umanmielen blindsided Haynes King and forced a fumble. The same thing happened on the Aggies’ next possession, with Antwaun Powell-Ryland doing the fumble-producing honors.

Those heroics were needed because Florida’s offense had stopped scoring. The Aggies got a final boost when UF couldn’t punch it in on fourth down from the 2-yard line.

Given how UF’s defense had played all season, fans had to expect A&M would drive down for a TD, recover an onsides kick and score on a last-second pass to win the game.

Instead, the Gators didn’t allow a first down.

“They got control of the line of scrimmage,” Fisher said.

Now there’s another set of words you probably didn’t think you’d read this year. All this unexpected vocabulary doesn’t mean Florida suddenly has a good defense.

It does mean that we shouldn’t be so quick to jump to grand conclusions with Napier, Richardson, Toney, etc., etc., etc.

There are enough signs of progress to think UF can win its final three games. An 8-4 finish and a bowl trip might even please the worst Twitter critics.

When Florida’s defense saves the day, anything is possible.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley

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