Gators' record in 2022 was half-empty, but the future looks more filling - Whitley
TALLAHASSEE — Billy Napier is not into public displays of emotion. But after the 12-game rollercoaster ride of a season came to an end Friday night, he couldn’t help himself.
“It’s humbling to be standing on that sideline,” he said, gently pounding the table in front of him. “I’m proud of the way those kids competed in the game. Proud of the way those kids came together.”
There was a lot for him to proud of against Florida State. But in the end, the Black Friday special was too much like all the checkered Saturdays that preceded it.
"Tough one to swallow," Napier said.
The Gators were really good in spots, had terrible stretches, showed resiliency, delivered plenty of drama and lost. This time it was 45-38, so nobody can say the regular-season’s final act wasn’t entertaining.
ABC's Friday night audience was treated to the highest scoring game in series history. It was the second straight week the crowd rushed the field after the home team beat the Gators, which might be some kind of record.
The last time FSU fans rushed the field was supposedly 1996, when the Seminoles beat the top-ranked Gators. In the intervening 26 years, rarely has so much joy erupted over beating a 6-6 team.
That’s probably a testament to where FSU has come from under Mike Norvell. He inherited the Jimbo Fisher/Willie Taggart dumpster fire and lost 13 of his first 21 games. Now the Seminoles are 9-3 and envisioning a return to Bowden-like glory.
“I’m just so excited for what the future holds here,” Norvell said.
So what about Florida? Should we judge a 6-6 season as half-empty or half-full?
The half-empty crowd will point to the erratic play, some curious play-calling and the bottom-line fact that Napier lost to all the rivals – Tennessee, Georgia and FSU.
That’s a first for a first-year coach at Florida. Throw in a loss to Vanderbilt, and there’s reason for fans to head into the holidays feeling half-empty.
“We just need to perform better overall,” Anthony Richardson said. “It definitely kind of hurts just knowing what we can do and we’re not doing it every minute.”
Pearsall, Etienne provided the good vs. FSU
The good minutes Friday night were Ricky Pearsall’s two touchdown catches and 148 yards receiving and freshman Trevor Etienne gaining 129 yards. Montrell Johnson added 85 yards as the Gators rolled up 262 yards rushing.
That’s good enough to win most games, unless your QB completes nine of 27 passes.
“It’s just crazy to see that there were only nine completions,” Richardson said. “That’s just crazy to me.”
It must be noted that five of UF’s top six receivers were out with injuries. It’d be hard for Patrick Mahomes to overcome that kind of insanity.
Then there was UF’s defense, which struggled to reach quarter-full level most of the season. It didn’t help matters that the top two tacklers were mostly missing. Rashad Torrance was out with an elbow injury and Ventrell Miller was serving a targeting penalty in the first half.
With or without Miller, the Gators could not contain Jordan Travis. FSU’s QB gave a clinic on how to turn sacks into game-changing plays.
“His legs were the difference in the game,” Napier said.
Those legs largely explained how FSU scored 17 straight points to take a 38-24 lead into the fourth quarter. Then the Gators followed the standard 2022 script, rallying from the near-dead to almost win.
Miller was asked if last year’s team would have shown such moxie. He said he didn’t know, so allow me to offer a definitive answer.
The 2021 team would have mailed it in.
The 2022 Gators laid the foundation for future teams
“I’m proud of the intangibles our team showed,” Napier said.
That gets to the half-full view of 2022. There has been a lot of progress, but it’s not easy to quantify and therefore easier to dismiss. But certain intangibles are the basis of every successful program.
It’s stuff like attitude and discipline and buying in. The go-to word is “culture.” Installing a new one was Job One this year for Napier.
“This a process,” he said before the game. “You don’t just flip a switch and the house is built.”
A lot of fans don’t want to hear that, especially when they see the quick rebuilds at places like USC and LSU. All I can say is every coach needs three years to restock and mentally condition a roster before a legit verdict can be rendered.
We’re one-third of the way there, not counting whatever bowl game UF gets. For all the legit half-full criticisms, there’s no question the culture has come around.
That’s why Napier pounded the table Friday night. He knows the foundation has been laid.
It takes a while for that to translate into tangible success, but that half-full glass will eventually start to fill.
Just look at FSU.
David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley