It won’t go down as the first or last time that I’ve been wrong. And in this instance, I was way wrong.
I thought Billy Napier’s decision to sign Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz was essentially committing career suicide. Now, to be clear, there have been many decisions by Napier that can fairly be questioned during his tenure at Florida to date, but his choice of Mertz as his starting quarterback in 2023 certainly isn’t one of them.
Mertz’s season ended Saturday night in a 33-31 loss at Missouri on Harrison Mevis’s 30-yard field goal with five seconds left. The Gators covered the spread as 12.5-point road underdogs.
Mertz was in the midst of another strong performance. He had completed 14-of-21 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. It was the first pick he’d thrown since Sept. 30 in a 33-14 loss at Kentucky.
The interception in Lexington wasn’t on Mertz, either. He had hit Dante Zanders right in the hands on a throw across the middle, but the tight end couldn’t make the catch and the pass was picked off after bouncing off Zanders’s hands.
With less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter, UF was facing a third-and-five situation from its own 30 trailing 23-21 at Missouri. After dropping back to pass, Mertz scrambled to his left and decided to try to run for the first down.
Although two Missouri defenders (a linebacker and a defensive back) were closing in on him, Mertz had a running start and simply decided to sacrifice his body in an attempt to gain first-down yardage.
The collision came about three yards shy of the sticks, but Mertz put his head down and ran right through both defenders. Then he gained about eight more yards until two defenders finally tackled him.
Mertz jumped up and signaled first down for the Gators. However, on the next play, the pain of a non-displaced fracture of his collarbone overcame the adrenaline rush of his grown-man run.
X-rays in the locker room minutes later revealed the injury. Mertz returned to the sidelines with his arm in a sling.
In 11 games, Mertz completed 72.9 percent of his passes. That’s tied for the best completion percentage in the SEC along with Georgia’s Carson Beck.
Of all the SEC QBs that started at least five games, Mertz has the fewest interceptions. He has a 20/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, with the 20 TD passes tied for third-most in the SEC.
Mertz has 2,903 passing yards to rank fifth in the SEC. He also has four rushing TDs.
Without Mertz, Florida backup redshirt freshman QB Max Brown entered the game. On a third-and-one play moments later, Montrell Johnson busted a 26-yard run to get UF to Missouri’s 24.
When the Tigers were flagged for a personal foul moments later, UF was in the red zone. But on a second-and-13 play, Brown coughed up a costly fumble.
Two plays after Brown’s fumble, Missouri QB Brady Cook connected with WR Theo Wease for a 77-yard TD pass.
But Florida would respond. On a third-and-15 play from UF’s own 20, Brown scrambled for an 11-yard gain. Then on fourth-and-four, Brown found Kahleil Jackson for a five-yard pass to move the sticks.
On the next play, Brown hit Jackson again with the former walk-on WR making a spectacular 27-yard catch. Several plays later, Trevor Etienne scored on a nine-yard TD run to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive to cut Missouri’s lead to 30-28 with 7:49 remaining.
After UF forced the Tigers to punt, it took over down by two with 4:44 left. The critical play of the drive came on a third-and-three when Brown sprinted off left tackle for a 27-yard run to put the Gators at Missouri’s 44 with 1:52 remaining.
Three plays later, UF’s Trey Smack buried a 35-yard field goal to the put UF back in front, 31-30.
But the Tigers had 1:36 left to get into field-goal range. On a third-and-eight play, Cook hit Mekhi Miller for a 13-yard pass to Missouri’s 40.
On first down, Missouri was flagged for a false start and then RB Cody Schrader was stopped for a loss of two yards. After back-to-back incomplete passes, the Tigers faced a fourth-and-17 situation with the game on the line.
With UF rushing four and in a zone defense, it somehow lost track of Missouri star WR (and likely All-American) Luther Burden, who brought down a 27-yard reception from Cook.
Two more completions from Cook to Miller and Mookie Cooper resulted in 11 and 16-yard gains, respectively, to set up Mevis’s heroics.
Although he did have the costly fumble in the red zone, Brown completed 4-of-5 passes for 56 yards. He also produced 42 rushing yards on seven attempts. Brown really didn’t have any bad plays with the exception of the fumble.
Therefore, there has to be some optimism for Brown going into his first career start Saturday night at The Swamp vs. unbeaten Florida St. The Seminoles will also be without their star QB Jordan Travis, who sustained a season-ending leg injury in Saturday’s home win over North Alabama.
The Seminoles need wins over the Gators and Louisville in the ACC Championship Game to make their second appearance in the College Football Playoff since it was created in 2014.
FanDuel had FSU (11-0 straight up, 6-5 against the spread) installed as a 12.5-point favorite at Florida (5-6 SU, 4-7 ATS) going into this past weekend. Those look-ahead numbers are taken off the board on Saturday mornings.
On Sunday afternoon, Circa opened the Seminoles as seven-point road favorites with a total of 50.5. The total initially moved down to 48.5 points before moving back up to 51 minutes later.
Circa’s first line move was adjusting FSU from -7 to -4, but the number moved to -5 and then -5.5 within five minutes. Thirteen minutes later, FSU was up to -6.5.
As of Monday afternoon, FSU was -6.5 across the board with a total of 51, while the Gators were +215 to +230 on the money line (Circa).