The Florida Gators (6-5, 3-5 SEC) could take some sting out of their upset loss last week at Vanderbilt by pulling off a stunner of their own Friday night at rival Florida State (7:30 p.m., ABC).
It won’t be easy. The surging Seminoles (8-3. 5-3 ACC) have won four straight. During the four-game win streak, FSU hasn’t just won; it’s dominated, winning by an average margin of 33.5 points.
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Florida has won three straight in the FSU series and enters the game as 9.5-point underdogs.
“It would mean the world to me,” said Florida safety Trey Dean, when asked about pulling out a win against FSU. “It would mean the world to this coaching staff, you know, this coaching staff deserves it. They put us in a position each and every week to come out and make plays, and I think we’re going to do that on Friday. Everybody in the world doesn’t think we’re going to be ready to play, but we’re going to be ready to play.”
First-year Florida coach Billy Napier is 0-2 in rivalry games this season, with losses to Tennessee and Georgia. There’s been plenty of noise in the system following last Saturday’s 31-24 loss at Vanderbilt, a game in which the Gators entered as 14-point favorites.
“We’ve got a lot of folks working extremely hard, a lot of people that care,” Napier said. “There’s nobody that cares and works like this group of people — players, staff members. The time that these people spend relative to doing their job at a high level, I would say that one day at a time, one person at a time, this group, we’re going to get it done.
Here are five storylines to watch for Friday’s game:
The Quarterback matchup
Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis has blossomed in his third year as a starter — passing for 1,539 yards and 15 TDs while rushing for 530 yards and 7 more TDs.
It’s been a bumpier ride for Floridspan quspanrterbspanck Anthony Richspanrdson in his first season as a starter. He threw for the second 400-yard game of his career last week but came up on the short end. Richardson has passed for 2,531 yards with 14 TDs to 8 interceptions, while rushing for 613 yards and 9 TDs. But his completion percentage (55.7 percent) has led to Florida’s offense lacking rhythm and consistency throughout the season.
Through the ups and downs, Richardson said he’s learned how to deal with adversity. “Pressure, the only time we do have pressure is when you put it on yourself,” Richardson said. “Because if you worry about what everybody else is thinking about you and what they want you to do, that can make things harder for you. But just staying true to yourself and understanding who you are and what you are, it just makes it easier for the pressure to go away.”
Line of scrimmage
Both Florida and Florida State have strong run games but have had issues stopping the run. The team that gets the most consistent tackling performance from its front seven could determine the outcome.
Florida is giving up 171.55 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 10th in the SEC. On offense, Florida is coming off a week in which it rushed for a season-low 45 yards on 2.1 yards per carry. The Gators are 6-1 when they rush for 200 yards or more and 0-4 when they rush for less than 200 yards.
“I want to give Vanderbilt defense some credit for coming out with a good game plan to get us out of our game,” Florida offensive lineman O’Cyrus Torrence said. “I think it slowed us down in the start, and we got behind. We had to lean on the throwing towards the second half of the game, and it just took the run game out of it.”
Florida State edge rusher Jared Verse has wreaked havoc in the front seven all season with 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. It will be up to Florida’s offensive line to keep the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Verse from getting around the edge and getting to the quarterback. Florida has surrendered just 12 sacks in 11 games this season.
Cleaning up penalties
Florida amassed a season-high 80 yards in penalties on seven flags last week against Vanderbilt. Many costly penalties came on the defensive end – as Princely Umanmielen (personal foul) and Antwaun Powell-Ryland (facemask) – each were whistled with 15-yard penalties on third downs that kept a Vanderbilt touchdown drive alive.
“For the first time since we’ve been here, penalties had a significant impact on the game,” Napier said. “Three third downs, where they get earned first (downs) off of penalties. We had two explosive runs that were called back as a result of penalties. Those are five significant plays in the game. One of those runs is down to the 4-yard line.”
Florida can’t afford those kinds of back-breaking penalties on the road against a talented FSU squad.
Friday Night Lights
Florida and Florida State will get a national spotlight with a prime-time game on Friday night, meaning a shorter week of preparation for players and coaches.
Florida State will enter the more rested team after sitting its starters in the second half of its 49-17 win over Louisiana. Florida, on the other hand, got banged up in its SEC loss to Vanderbilt, losing receiver Ricky Pearsall and safety Rashad Torrence II to injuries.
Napier expects the Gators to come out with energy despite losing a day of rest and preparation time. “This group has showed some resiliency,” Napier said. “It’s a tough group. It’s a group that cares about each other. It’s a group that’s worked extremely hard for a long time. There’s no question they’ll be ready to go.”