GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Florida coach Jim McElwain refuses to make excuses for his undermanned team.
He certainly could, even though few outsiders, if any, would listen at this point.
The unranked Gators (3-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) dropped consecutive home games for the first time in three years, losing 19-17 to Texas A&M on Saturday a week after falling 17-16 to LSU . The latest setback knocked Florida out of contention in the SEC’s Eastern Division, which it won the last two years, and raised questions about the direction of the program.
The main debate: Does McElwain deserve credit or criticism for the team’s current situation?
The Gators were essentially down more than 20 scholarship players – nearly a fourth of their roster – against the Aggies, who used three big plays to set up three fourth-quarter field goals. Texas A&M took its first lead with 58 seconds remaining.
The lack of available bodies surely aided in Florida’s ineptitude, which was on display in front of 90,000 at Florida Field. Even though the Gators broke out new, camouflaged-styled alternate uniforms designed to look like alligator skin, there was no hiding the team’s flaws.
”I believe in these guys,” McElwain said. ”I believe in this team and I will continue to do that, and we’ll continue to push and get a little bit better.”
Quarterback Feleipe Franks has plenty of room for improvement. Although he had a huge run , he missed open receivers and showed little feel for managing a game. Franks completed 17 of 26 passes for 129 yards, with two interceptions and five sacks. His longest completion against the league’s 12th-ranked passing unit was an impromptu flip to Malik Davis that the running back turned into a 20-yard gain during Florida’s opening drive.
”I know people are going to be out there just talking and talking and downgrading us,” Franks said. ”But I think we’re going to be just fine.”
Franks, a redshirt freshman already benched twice and demoted this season, was forced back into the starting lineup when Luke Del Rio suffered a season-ending broken collarbone two weeks ago.
Del Rio is part of a growing list of Florida players watching losses mount from afar.
The Gators have nine players, including the team’s leading receiver (Antonio Callaway) and rusher (Jordan Scarlett) from last season, suspended indefinitely while the state investigates potential felony credit card fraud charges.
Throw in numerous injuries, and the Gators are ultra-thin on both sides of the ball. It affects practice and surely takes a toll late in games.
So maybe Florida should be commended for even being in games? McElwain insists there are no free passes.
Still, the lengthy injury list includes the team’s leading tackler (safety Marcell Harris) from 2016 as well as dynamic receiver Kadarius Toney, deep threat Tyrie Cleveland, safety Nick Washington, defensive end Jabari Zuniga, guard Brett Heggie, linebacker Jeremiah Moon and running back Mark Thompson.
Defensive end Jordan Sherit, a fifth-year senior, joined them on the sideline in the fourth quarter with a hip injury that McElwain said will require surgery. With and without Sherit, the Aggies piled up 127 yards on 27 plays in the final frame.
But Florida’s ongoing issues seemingly go deeper than manpower.
McElwain spent seven months raving about his offensive line, even calling it the ”true strength” of his team, and the unit has been mediocre at best. And the guy who once claimed he could win with his dog at quarterback has an offense that has managed four touchdown passes in six games, and that includes an improbable 63-yarder on the final play to beat Tennessee and two in which Kentucky failed to cover receivers.
Meanwhile, the quarterback McElwain encouraged to transfer following his suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs in 2015, West Virginia’s Will Grier, has 21 touchdown passes. The Gators are 16-11 since Grier’s suspension, with three of those wins coming against seemingly overmatched opponents in payday games.
Here’s the most telling part for McElwain and Florida: It could be worse. If not for those defensive gaffes by Tennessee and Kentucky, the Gators could be 1-5 heading into their bye week and entering a rivalry game against fourth-ranked Georgia as huge underdogs.
”We’re going to get this thing back on track immediately,” defensive end CeCe Jefferson said. ”You know, these past two games, that’s not the Florida Gator way and that’s definitely not Florida Gator football. These two losses give us a lot of (motivation) going into the next game.”
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