Offensive answers continue to dwindle as Florida prepares for Alabama


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For the first time in a while, Florida coach Jim McElwain trudged to his postgame news conference Saturday night with dejection on his face and heavy frustration in his voice. Moments before, he watched his 10-win team get dragged through the Swamp during a 27-2 loss to arch-rival Florida State.

Even an improbable double-digit win total and a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game this couldn't lighten the mood for Florida's first-year coach after watching his regressing offense get shut down. If not for a safety in the fourth quarter, the Gators would have suffered their first shutout since 1988.

“They made some plays and we didn’t," McElwain said. "Plain and simple.”

Florida, which is now all but out of the College Football Playoff race, hardly made any dent against a real defense. And it's obvious this team greatly misses starting quarterback Will Grier, who was suspended in mid-October for testing positive for a NCAA-banned substance. Grier wasn't a world-beater, but he led Florida to a double-digit comeback win over Tennessee and a 38-10 victory over then-No. 3 Ole Miss. Since his suspension, Florida's offense has lacked explosion and become too predictable.

With Treon Harris at quarterback, the Gators' offense steadily declined in November (registering less than 300 yards three times), and everything came crashing down with a dismal performance against the Seminoles. A week after getting blanked in the first half and registering just 252 yards against a two-win Florida Atlantic team, Florida mustered just 262 yards and a season-low 3.3 yards per play. Florida was a paltry 5-for-17 on third downs and was 0-for-3 in the red zone.

Even with Florida's offensive line keeping the pocket relatively clean, Harris continuously missed -- or just didn't see -- open receivers, struggled with reading FSU's defense, and completed just 19 of his 38 passes for 134 yards (3.5 yards per attempt). Erratic and embattled kicker Austin Hardin missed a 51-yard field goal and had a 37-yard attempt blocked.

Five of Florida's 14 total drives on Saturday ended in FSU territory, yet Florida's offense never scored. Two of those drives ended on failed fourth-down attempts, there was a punt, and then those two missed field goals. Florida also had five three-and-outs and four drives of eight or more plays that ended without points.

“We didn’t finish at all, man, when needed to finish," said running back Kelvin Taylor, who was the lone offensive bright spot with 136 yards on 24 carries.

After all the ugly wins, FSU exposed Florida's offense for what it is: An absolute mess. The Gators' inability to hit big plays, convert third downs or come up with any points in the red zone finally caught up with them at the end of an already offensively inept month. Florida averaged 13.8 points per game and scored just seven touchdowns in November. Against Florida Atlantic and South Carolina -- two defenses that rank outside of the top 74 nationally -- Florida managed just 44 total points. Since Harris' start against LSU, Florida has scored on just seven of 17 red zone trips.

Even when Taylor found holes in the running game, the passing game prematurely ended drives. Florida State spied Harris up and didn't need to send extra guys on the blitz much because Harris was mostly inefficient in the pocket. McElwain said he never considered replacing Harris, but Harris' inability to hit open receivers dramatically altered what the Gators could do offensively.

"We’ve got to deliver it," McElwain said of Harris missing open receivers.

What made matters worse was the fact that Florida's defense was once again outstanding for most of the game before it wore down late. Florida State had a 13-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter, yet the Seminoles' 10-point halftime lead seemed almost insurmountable with how much Florida's offense floundered. Florida's defense forced five three-and-outs and seven punts, but the Gators' offense was zero help.

“It just makes you sick when you see how hard they’re playing and the type of defense that they are and you can’t give them any help," tight end Jake McGee said. "We weren’t able to give them anything.”

Now the Gators must regroup and try to find some sort of positive formula in the SEC title game against Alabama's No. 2 overall defense (264.6 yards per game), which has allowed 300 yards just twice in the past five games. It's beyond a tall task for an offense going in reverse with fewer and fewer answers and an inability to find the end zone, no matter how close.

"I don’t know if it was one particular thing, but we have to be able to finish those ... drives to be a championship-level team,” McGee said.