Notebook: Brawl breaks out in ugly Mizzou loss at Florida
At first, it looked like Florida was content to let the remaining seconds tick off the clock. The Gators had gotten the ball back with 35 seconds left in the first half during Saturday night’s game against Missouri. They tried a couple deep passes, but both fell incomplete, so, on third down, coach Dan Mullen called for an inside handoff. When that failed to move the chains, he sent the punting unit onto the field, apparently content to take his team’s 20-7 lead into the locker room.
Before either team could get there, punches were thrown, players were ejected and the two head coaches squared off in a yelling match on the field.
A brawl erupted between Missouri and Florida at halftime, capping a disastrous and decisive few minutes for the Tigers. No. 10 Florida scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the first half to transform Missouri’s 7-6 lead into a 20-7 deficit, which the Tigers’ struggling offense could not overcome. Missouri lost 41-17, snapping its two-game winning streak.
More than anything that happened with time on the game clock, the mid-game melee became the story Saturday. It took a couple Missouri miscues just to get there. After Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz called a timeout with 14 seconds remaining, Florida did end up punting, but reserve linebacker Jamie Pettway jumped offsides, giving the Gators five yards and a free first down. Even still, from its own 43-yard line, Florida wasn’t aggressive, handing the ball to Nay’Quan Wright on a draw play. That used up the half’s remaining seconds. But once again, Missouri got flagged for being offsides, defensive end Tre Williams this time the guilty party. The defensive penalty gave Florida one untimed down, and this time, Mullen let quarterback Kyle Trask throw for the end zone. Safety Tyree Gillespie batted the ball to the turf, which looked like it would finally bring the half to an end.
On the play, however, Missouri defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat delivered a hard hit to Trask’s upper body after Trask had released the ball. Jeffcoat didn’t draw a penalty flag, but he did earn the ire of the Florida players, who started yelling and shoving. Several Gator players from the sideline joined the fray, and Mullen appeared to run onto the field yelling, as well. Soon, Missouri’s sideline emptied, too. The field became a mosh pit, with coaches and officials trying in vain to break up the brouhaha. Missouri defensive tackle Akial Byers got his helmet ripped off. Linebacker Chad Bailey tangled with Florida’s Zachary Carter. Markell Utsey threw a series of wild punches with both hands.
After the players were finally shepherded into their respective locker rooms, Drinkwitz sought out Mullen. Surrounded by security personnel, the two red-faced coaches had an animated conversation that Drinkwitz admitted after the game “wasn’t exactly pleasant.” Finally, after they went their separate ways, Mullen jogged into the tunnel leading to the locker room, only to reemerge, raising his arms in an attempt to elicit cheers from the 12,049 fans in attendance.
Drinkwitz called the scene “ugly for college football” and “disappointing.”
“Honestly, I don’t really know (what happened),” Drinkwitz said. “My eyes were on the ball. We played the ball, the ball was knocked away, I started running in and saw one of their coaches on our hash yelling at our guys, and then I saw more of their players join in and then our players joined in, and we gotta keep our guys from joining in, we gotta keep our guys from the sidelines. It’s an ugly scene.”
During his postgame interview with SEC Network sideline reporter Taylor Davis, Mullen didn’t sound quite as upset about the fight, but he did say he "doesn't condone it. " He also confirmed that Jeffcoat’s hit on Trask instigated the trouble.
“From my understanding, our guys thought they took a late hit on our quarterback,” Mullen said. “They’re going to protect him, you know what I mean? That’s their guy. And I think they were going to protect him. I think both sides were trying to get people off the field, but everybody was a little bit edgy and probably went a little too far with it. I know we were trying to get our guys off the field in the middle of it all.”
Ultimately, officials ejected Williams for Missouri along with Carter and Antwuan Powell for Florida. Every other player on each team received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The SEC could impose further penalties this week. The league office will surely review the incident.
“I don’t know why they were running over to our hash,” Drinkwitz said of the Florida coaches. “I have no idea what even kind of they were yelling about, so we’ll take a look at the film, but I’m sure we’ll find out more tomorrow when we watch the tape. Film doesn’t lie.”
The game started to get out of control for Missouri in the minutes leading up to the brawl. Florida didn’t find the end zone on any of its first five drives, and a Jarvis Ware interception return for a touchdown gave Missouri a one-point lead for most of the second quarter. Florida finally broke through when shifty receiver Kadarius Toney took a screen pass 18 yards for a touchdown with 1:41 left in the half.
Missouri tried to take advantage of the remaining time on the clock. But on third down and one, two Florida defensive linemen knifed into the backfield, disrupting a read option between quarterback Connor Bazelak and tailback Tyler Badie. Badie tried to take the handoff from Bazelak, Bazelak tried to keep the ball for himself, and it wound up falling on the turf, where Brenton Cox fell on it. The very next play, Trask found a wide-open Toney for a 30-yard touchdown.
“Looked like our left tackle got beat across face with the defensive stunt, and the running back was trying to jump cut at the same time the quarterback was trying to pull it with the defensive end coming down, crashing, and when that happens, you’ve got one guy pulling one way, one guy going the other, it’s just typically a fumble,” Drinkwitz explained. “So we’ve gotta do a better job not allowing penetration, and can’t turn it over. And then we busted a coverage.”
After a longer-than-usual halftime due to the fight, Florida’s offense picked up where it left off, scoring a touchdown on its first possession and three of its first four drives after the break. Missouri’s, meanwhile, remained stagnant. Florida wound up out-gaining the Tigers 514 total yards to 248.
Both coaches noted after the game that the two teams did a good job of not letting the fight “bleed over” into the second half. But Drinkwitz said it impacted Missouri’s chances of wiping away its 14-point deficit.
“We just lost our composure,” he said. “Lost our composure and tried to get everybody settled down, and obviously we didn’t do that, because then they went out there and drove the length of the field and scored, and then we went three and out offensively, so gotta do a better job getting our team under control and adjusting for halftime.”
Offensive line struggles sans two starters
Missouri’s offensive line earned quite a bit of praise following the team’s win over Kentucky last weekend, and deservedly so. The Tigers rushed the ball 62 times against the Wildcats, which allowed them to hold the ball for more than 43 minutes. Junior guard Case Cook was named the offensive lineman of the week by the SEC as a result.
The unit crashed back to earth against Florida. With true freshman Dylan Spencer replacing the injured Xavier Delgado at left guard and sophomore Javon Foster starting for Larry Borom at right tackle, Missouri mustered just 40 yards on 23 carries — a paltry 1.7 yards per rush. Florida recorded six tackles for loss and sacked Bazelak three times, hurrying him on several more occasions.
“We left a lot of stuff out there,” Cook said after the game. “There was a lot of yards, a lot of plays that we left out there. We could have executed better. That’s really the bottom line, we just gotta do a better job executing up front as a unit. That’s all five guys.”
Saturday exposed Missouri’s lack of depth up front, which doesn’t exactly come as a shock for a unit that has been ravaged by injuries and opt-outs. Not only did Spencer and Foster each make their first career start, Bobby Lawrence replaced Zeke Powell at left tackle midway through the game. It wasn’t clear if Powell was removed due to injury or ineffectiveness. Even Cook missed at least a few snaps, which resulted in the first meaningful playing time for redshirt freshman Luke Griffin. Still, Cook didn’t want to use injuries as an excuse for the performance.
“When you’re mixing and moving around pieces, it’s always difficult,” Cook said. “Takes a bit to get comfortable with the guy you’re playing next to. But I thought the guys came in and stepped up and did a good job, and at the end of the day, we just gotta execute better as a unit. That’s what it came down to, and we beat ourselves a lot tonight.”
Drinkwitz didn’t single out the offensive line, but he included them among those responsible for the Tigers’ inability to move the ball. He also assigned blame to himself.
“I gotta do better,” he said. “It’s my job to call plays we can execute, my job to put us in a situation to be successful offensively, but I didn’t do that tonight. So bottom line, that’s on me, and we have to work hard to get it fixed, and it is what it is.”
Toney tears up Tiger defense
Throughout the week, Drinkwitz identified two players on Florida’s offense who would present difficult matchups for Missouri. The headliner was tight end Kyle Pitts. The junior entered Saturday with seven touchdowns in just three games, helping fuel speculation that he could be selected in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft.
After a strong start, Missouri actually did a pretty good job of limiting Pitts. Pitts finished the game with five catches for 81 yards, both beneath his season averages. He didn’t find the end zone for the first time all season. But for the Gators’ other weapon, Missouri had no answer.
Toney torched Missouri, scoring three touchdowns on seven touches. The do-everything speedster scored on a deep pattern, a screen pass and a handoff. In all, he caught four passes for 60 yards and two touchdowns and rushed three times for 23 yards and another score.
“We didn’t set good enough edges against Kadarius, and he continued to break tackles,” Drinkwitz said. “I don’t have individual stats, but I know the first half when they were moving the ball down the field they seemed to keep finding him.”
As Drinkwitz alluded to, Missouri’s chief defensive issue against Toney and the rest of the Gators was its tackling. Toney made at least four men miss on his first touchdown of the night, alone.
“We gotta tackle, gotta wrap up better, gotta gang tackle,” linebacker Nick Bolton said. “... We gotta run through tackles. They got good athletes in space, and so we just gotta do our best to bring the ball carrier down when we have the opportunity to.”
'Turnover robe' makes its debut
One successful moment for Missouri’s defense came when a blitzing Bolton smashed Trask as he tried to throw deep in the second quarter. The hit caused Trask’s pass to float high into the air and land in the hands of Ware. The junior quarterback returned it 59 yards for a touchdown.
The defensive score resulted in a unique sight, and not only because it marked Missouri’s first interception of the 2020 season. Afterward, on the sideline, Ware donned a black, hooded boxing robe trimmed in gold. The back read “Turnover Champ.” Sideline prizes for defensive players who force turnovers have become common in college football, but Bolton confirmed this was a new incentive for the Missouri defense.
“Coach Walters brought that out yesterday for us,” Bolton said. “We were excited for it. Jarvis was the first one to wear it, so hopefully there’s a lot of more guys wearing it in the future.”