The Jim McElwain era officially began Saturday night in the Swamp in front of a sellout crowd of 90,227 — and it didn’t disappoint.
Removed from Gainesville was playmaking ability and offensive fireworks for the better half of a decade now, so finally seeing somewhat of a resurgence on that side of the ball was satisfying to say the least.
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But does this seemingly-rekindled offense make Florida a true national power again, or is New Mexico State just as dormant as it’s been in recent history?
Whatever the case, McElwain has certainly restored excitement in the Gator Nation — for now.
It’s a good start, sure, but we’ll have a better understanding of what this Florida team is capable of when it begins SEC play in a few weeks.
In the meantime, let’s dissect the Gators’ Game 1 performance.
As expected, the quarterback battle of the spring and fall camps carried over into the season-opener with both sophomore Treon Harris and redshirt freshman Will Grier seeing playing time against the Aggies.
The Gators will need vast improvment on the offensive side of the ball if they want to crash the championship party in Atlanta
Both were equally impressive.
Harris bookended the contest, completing 14 of 19 attempts for 215 yards and two touchdowns throughout the first and fourth quarters; Grier commanded the offense in the middle two quarters, finishing 15 of 17 for 164 yards, two passing TDs and a rushing score.
Both QBs had plenty of help from the ground game — led by junior running back Kelvin Taylor (eight carries for 54 yards and one touchdown) — as well as the receiving corps. Running back-turned-wide receiver Brandon Powell contributed to the aerial attack (two catches for 50 yards and a touchdown), as did freshman tight end C’yontai Lewis (two receptions for 44 yards and two scores).
Freshman wideout Antonio Callaway (three receptions for 26 yards), sophomore tight end DeAndre Goolsby (three catches for 38 yards) and freshman tailbacks Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite (both with a touchdown) all made plays for the Gators, as well.
In all, 14 Gators caught passes against the Aggies, including All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
Overall, McElwain’s Gators finished with 606 total yards of offense in a 61-13 rout over New Mexico State. Not too shabby for a debut.
Now the only uncertainty is the offensive line. This unit held its own against a lowly New Mexico State, but how will its inexperience fare against far-superior SEC foes?
The defense, aside from a few lapses, was solid given the circumstances.
Hargreaves — who logged a 41-yard interception — and sophomore Jalen Tabor (two pass breakups, one tackle for loss) locked down their respective sides of the field, while the defensive line held NMSU to under 75 rushing yards.
Hail Florida Hail
The Gators were penalty-free defensively, but their performance wasn’t flawless.
Florida’s secondary surrendered a few big plays (including Teldrick Morgan’s spectacular 31-yard touchdown catch). The team’s tackling was also suspect at times, but it had a ton of voids to fill: defensive end Alex McCallister and safety Marcus Maye served suspensions, while starting safety Keanu Neal (leg), freshman offensive tackle Martez Ivey (knee scope) and backup linebacker Matt Rolin (undisclosed) were all injured for the opener.
Still, the Aggies only managed 128 yards through the air.
Expect an even better showing defensively with McCallister and Maye returning against East Carolina this Saturday.
There’s not much to say about Florida’s special teams.
Kicker Austin Hardin finished the night making nine-of-ten kicks — a blocked extra point being the only miss; Hargreaves showcased his versatility as the lead punt returner; Johnny Townsend only had to punt once (40 yards) — and it was well-covered.
The only area of concern for the Gators was the kickoff return game, which was particularly latent despite only having a few opportunities.
Special teams improvement is likely as the season progresses, though.
What to expect
Don’t hop on the Florida bandwagon just yet. If you recall, the Gators opened last season with a 655-yard, 65-0 shellacking over Eastern Michigan — and we all know how that offense turned out.
In addition, New Mexico State was among the nation’s worst teams the past three seasons and has failed to reach a bowl game since the Eisenhower Administration (1960).
Expecting UF to be a national powerhouse again after beating up on an FBS cellar-dweller is ill-advised. The Gators are certainly headed in the right direction under McElwain, but success is a gradual process — especially under a new regime.
The Florida-Kentucky match-up in Lexington will be an eye-opener for the Gator Nation as the Wildcats are poised to end their 28-game losing streak against the orange and blue.
But be patient Florida faithful, a turnaround is in the making.