One pass changed everything.
Through one quarter of play, Florida and FCS opponent Tennessee Martin exchanged drives that went nowhere thanks to solid pushes from each team’s respective defensive fronts. A 45-point favorite before the game, UF fans held their breath as the opening quarter ended just 3-0 in the Gators’ favor.
But in a blink, groans and complaints from the crowd turned to cheers and revelry when redshirt senior receiver Van Jefferson caught a deep pass from quarterback Feleipe Franks that went 69 yards for the game’s first touchdown. Florida never looked back.
After an early scare, No. 11 Florida, as expected, took care of business in its home opener against UT Martin on Saturday, winning 45-0 on the back of its defense and pass game.
“The first game (against Miami on Aug. 24) was kind of such a unique, special game and you come off it, but cleaned a little bit of things up,” coach Dan Mullen said after the game. “We have a lot to clean up off of this game. We have to take some big steps forward before next week.”
Jefferson’s touchdown ignited an offensive onslaught, and as the sun went down and the lights came on, Florida’s struggles dissipated. Two-yard runs became five yards. Three-yard passes became 10. Conservative play-calling became aggressive, and the offense began to move the ball as the Gators ended the first half up 17-0.
Franks went into the halftime intermission almost perfect with 15 of his 16 passes going for completions, two touchdowns and 183 yards. He finished the game just 12 yards shy of his career-high 282 yards in a game, set in 2018 against Vanderbilt.
“I thought everything was clicking,” Franks said after the game. “I think it started with our O-line, they did a great job giving me time… We kind of had to create windows, receivers had to stay alive, second window throws. I just throw it to them, and they always do their thing.”
UF spread the ball around and saw five of its next seven drives end in touchdowns after the bomb to Jefferson.
Eleven different players caught a ball by the game’s end, including redshirt freshman receiver Jacob Copeland, who caught all three of his targets for 23 yards and his first career touchdown from backup quarterback Kyle Trask in the fourth quarter.
“There are guys we want to get the ball to and (Copeland) is one of them,” Mullen said. “He looked pretty explosive with the ball, made some nice catches. He still has a little bit of work to do with the intricacies of playing and the grasp of the offense. We wanted the opportunity to get the ball in his hands, and he did a good job with it.”
The defense also looked much improved on its open-field tackling, a big problem against Miami. Defenders wrapped up and gang tackled, giving the ball carrier no chance to get away. Florida’s continuous rotations also resulted in 26 different defenders finding their way on the stat sheet. Freshman cornerback Kaiir Elam highlighted the game defensively with the team’s first turnover of the season, an interception in the endzone in the fourth quarter, the first of his career.
Penalties were another area of improvement during Saturday’s contest. Florida had just one in the first half, a holding call on the last play, and ended the game with just three penalties for 30 yards compared to the nine for 100 yards it had against Miami.
The game did have its share of injuries.
Receiver Kadarius Toney and corner CJ Henderson both were helped off the field with their respective nights done. Mullen said after the game that he had limited information but does believe Henderson has a slight ankle sprain. More information will come Monday on both players’ availability for next week’s matchup against Kentucky on Sept. 14.
Kentucky’s an excellent football team,” Mullen said. “Mark (Stoops, head coach) has done a great job with that program. So we have to really kind of crank it up, and it starts Monday morning when we show up. It’s got to be a greater sense of urgency for us. We have a good attitude, I just think we need to have a little more grind and sense of urgency to be exact in every one of our details.”
Follow Dylan Rudolph on Twitter @dyrudolph. Contact him at [email protected].