COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Florida coach Billy Napier was asked this week what stood out to him while watching game film of No. 11 Missouri, which will host the Gators on Saturday night in the Tigers' home finale.
“They play complementary football,” Napier replied, before going on to talk about quarterback Brady Cook and other factors. A few minutes later, Napier was asked what has been ailing his Gators, who have lost their last three games.
“We need to play better complementary football,” he replied.
“Ultimately,” he said, “that's our issue. It isn't just one unit. We have to put all parts of our team together. At this point where we're at, that's the issue. The defense shows up, and the offense doesn't. Not just week to week but half to half or quarter to quarter.”
Last week was a perfect example for both teams.
Missouri (8-2, 4-2 SEC, No. 11 CFP) dominated longtime nemesis Tennessee in time of possession, which allowed its defense to stay fresh and slow down one of the nation's fastest offenses. The result was a 36-7 win that ended a four-game losing streak in which many of the losses came in embarrassing fashion.
“I thought in all three phases we played well,” Cook said. “When one unit made a mistake, like when I threw an interception, we didn't let it affect us too long. We bounced back and that served us well.”
The Gators (5-5, 3-4), meanwhile, held LSU in check in the first half and took the lead in the third quarter, when Trevor Etienne and Graham Mertz had back-to-back touchdown runs. But the offense disappeared the rest of the way, reaching the end zone once more, and so did the defense, allowing the Tigers to score four more TDs in a 52-35 win.
“Consistency is what we're seeking,” Napier said, “and I do think we need to continue to develop players. We need to see some improvement from players, and we need to eliminate some of the mistakes that have nothing to do with the opponent.”
That is something that Eli Drinkwitz's team has finally done in his fourth season. The result is the most wins for the Tigers since 2018, the possibility of playing in a New Year's Six bowl game and the foundation for future success.
“I'm really proud of our team and what they accomplished last Saturday,” Drinkwitz said, “but as I told the team and our staff, our mindset has to be 1-and-0. We have to take the emotion out of the victory and look ahead to our next opponent.”
Ty'Ron Hopper, the Tigers' leading tackler, had X-rays and an MRI come back clean on the ankle he hurt last Saturday. Drinkwitz said it was a sprain but “it was pretty swollen,” and it is unclear whether he will be available against the Gators.
The Tigers will be celebrating their seniors on Saturday before they wrap up the season next week at Arkansas. Some of them, such as defensive end Darius Robinson, have been with the program since Barry Odom was the coach.
“I thought last year was the last time, and now this time is really the last time,” said Robinson, who took advantage of the extra year afforded players due to the pandemic. “I'm excited but also very sad at the same time.”
BOWL GAME OR BUST
Three straight losses, including an overtime defeat by Arkansas in the Swamp, have left the Gators needing to win one of their final two games to qualify for a bowl. And as good as the Tigers have been this season, they might be the best possibility of snagging one; the Gators wrap up the regular season against fourth-ranked Florida State.
Last week, Mertz broke the Florida record of 203 pass attempts without an interception that was held by Tim Tebow, and now he carries an active streak of 226 games into Faurot Field. On the opposite sideline, Cook set an SEC-record of 366 attempts without an interception before LSU’s Harold Perkins Jr. ended it on Oct. 7.
HEY, I KNOW YOU
While this is only the second time Napier and Drinkwitz have faced off in the SEC, the two coaches should be familiar with each other. Drinkwitz twice led Appalachian State to victories over Napier and Louisiana-Lafayette in 2019, once in the regular season and again in the Sun Belt title game. Napier exacted some revenge last season when Florida beat Missouri, 24-17.