Florida football: 5 storylines for Gators vs. Oregon State Beavers in the Las Vegas Bowl
Florida football coach Billy Napier has preached opportunity all season.
The Gators (6-6) will get a last chance to end the 2022 season on a positive note when they face No. 16 Oregon State (9-3) at Allegiant Stadium on Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl (2:30 p.m., ESPN).
At stake for Florida is a winning season in Napier's first year as he attempts to get the Gators back to a championship-contending football program. Florida hasn't won an SEC championship since 2008, the same year it won its last national championship.
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Napier went 2-1 in three bowl games at Louisiana, with wins in the Lending Tree and First Responder Bowls.
"Bowl games are all about attitude and mindset," Napier said. "It's about being ready to play, having the right frame of mind."
The Gators arrived in Las Vegas on Tuesday and have tried to strike a balance of having fun with preparing for another ranked Pac 12 opponent. Florida upset eventual Pac 12 champion Utah 29-26 at The Swamp to open the season in its best win of the year. Like Utah, Oregon State is a physical team that will look to establish and stop the run first.
Oregon State enters the bowl game on a three-game win streak, while Florida has lost two straight. The Beavers, under fifth-year coach Jonathan Smith, will attempt to post a 10-win season for the first time since 2006, when OSU went 10-4 under Mike Riley.
"They've got a heckuva team," Napier said. "They play really good football. Obviously, they've got a lot of momentum since they made the quarterback change, they've played fantastic football. Ton of respect for the program that coach has built and when we watch the film, we see a really good football team."
Here are five storylines to watch:
It's (Jack) Miller time
Miller will get the opportunity to run the offense as Florida's starting quarterback with Anthony Richardon's decision to turn pro and backup quarterback Jalen Kitna's dismissal from the team after being arrested on five counts of possession and distribution of child pornography.
Miller has had limited reps in practice since returning from a broken thumb in October but has worked with the first team since the start of bowl practices last week. Florida offensive lineman Richard Gouraige said the Ohio State transfer has demonstrated a strong work ethic in preparing for his first career college start.
“Jack, he's been stepping up," Gouraige said. "Every time I get here at like 7:30 I’m always seeing him upstairs watching film with Coach and watching PFF or something like that. Always trying to improve his game the best way he can. I know this is going to be a big challenge for him. First start, but I know that as an offensive line we are going to do our job and create less havoc for him and all that and just let him go out and do his thing.”
Game will be won or lost on the line of scrimmage
Florida will face a physical Oregon State defensive front that ranks 20th nationally in stopping the run (114.0 ypg). Inside linebacker Omar Speights (77 tackles, 6 tackles for loss) has been a run-stuffer throughout the season for the Beavers.
The Gators will be without All-American right guard O'Cyrus Torrence, a key cog in a Florida offensive line that helped their run game rank third in the country in yards per carry (5.8).
On offense, look for Oregon State to try to establish the run against Florida's front seven, which will be without its emotional leader and third leading tackler, linebacker Ventrell Miller (74 tackles, 8.5 TFL). Oregon State freshman running back Damien Martinez (970 yards, 7 TDs) is closing in on a 1,000-yard season.
"It's going to be physical game," Napier said. "There's no question the line of scrimmage is going to be important. The edges, great matchups all up and down the field."
Keeping Gulbranson in check
Oregon State quarterback Ben Gulbranson has gone 6-1 as a starter since taking over for Chance Nolan, who was sidelined in early October with a neck injury. Gulbranson, a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman from Newbury Park, Calif., has shown good poise and accuracy, completing 62.3 percent of his passes for 1,290 yards with 8 TDs to 5 interceptions.
Florida's secondary, led by cornerbacks Jason Marshall Jr. and Jaydon Hill, will need to stay on point to keep Gulbranson from getting into a rhythm and moving the chains.
Florida's lack of depth
Miller, Richardson, Torrence and wide receiver Justin Shorter all won't play in the bowl after declaring for the NFL Draft. Florida also had 17 players enter the transfer portal this month, but Napier expects some of those players to suit up for Saturday's game.
"The majority of the other guys that are missing maybe had a small role on special teams," Napier said. "The bulk of our team is here and we're looking forward to competing."
Kamryn Waites will make his first career start at right guard in place of Torrence, while linebacker Derek Wingo will start in place of Miller.
Staying focused in Sin City won't be easy
Las Vegas is a town that presents numerous distractions. For many Florida players, it's their first trip to Sin City, a town teeming with bars, nightclubs and casinos along its fabled strip.
Defensive lineman Tyreak Sapp got into the spirit of the town by dancing with an Elvis impersonator, while wide receiver Ricky Pearsall took this pose with the Pink Panther during a charity event on Wednesday.
"We're here to win the game," Florida edge rusher Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr. said. "We're gonna have fun because, you know, it's the bowl week. But when it's time to play football then all jokes aside, we've got to play."
Florida will take part in a pep rally on Friday from 4-5:30 p.m. PT on the Virgin Hotel lawn.
"I think it's important that when it's time to work, we do the work the right way," Napier said. "Obviously, we get an opportunity to enjoy Las Vegas. We're going to do that as well."