The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Behind Enemy Bylines: Florida Gators

Prior to Vanderbilt’s matchup with Florida, the Hustler went Behind Enemy Bylines with Joseph Henry and Michael Hull from The Independent Florida Alligator.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt snapped a 26-SEC game losing streak against Kentucky on Saturday (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Vanderbilt (4-6) will be back in action this Saturday after winning their first SEC game in three years. The win was undoubtedly the most significant victory in the Clark Lea era to date, and will serve as a benchmark that this team can look back on as they continue to try to build this program into a powerhouse.

The Commodores played a strong defensive game, and gashed the Wildcats for 255 yards on the ground between the efforts of Mike Wright and Ray Davis. Vanderbilt will have to hope that the same formula will be a recipe for success against the Florida Gators (6-4).

The Commodores haven’t beaten the Gators in thirteen years, most recently posting a goose egg against them in Gainesville last year in a 42-0 tilt. The Gators have played relatively strong football this season against a tough schedule, losing all but one of their games to teams currently ranked in the AP top 10. Florida is coming off a big SEC win in their own right, thrashing the South Carolina Gamecocks by a score of 38-6. 

The Hustler went Behind Enemy Bylines and interviewed Joseph Henry, the sports editor for The Independent Florida Alligator, and Michael Hull, former sports editor and current sports writer for The Alligator, to preview this Saturday’s matchup.

Vanderbilt Hustler: Florida is coming off its second straight SEC win and largest SEC margin of victory since their game against Vanderbilt last season. How confident of a Gator football team is this right now?

Joseph Henry: This is the second time this season that Florida has stacked back-to-back victories. The last time they did it, one of the wins included a victory over Eastern Washington, who is not an SEC opponent. This is probably the most confident Florida has been this season as far as actually seeing results on the scoreboard. The fact that the team hasn’t allowed a point in the last six quarters is pretty impressive. The offense has definitely been rolling. This is the most confident Florida has been this season. They are really just trying to end the year on a high note at this point.

VH: In the last two games, running backs Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne have combined for 71 carries and 441 yards. Is there a two-headed monster forming in Gainesville?

JH: I would make the argument that it’s not forming, it’s been formed for a little while. In the early parts of the season, there was another running back. He’s kind of been phased out of the offense at this point in the year. Nay’Quan Wright sat atop the depth chart for the first four or five weeks of the season. Johnson was a transfer to Florida and Etienne was a freshman, so we hadn’t really had a look at them going into the year. Wright was the one running back we had experience with, so it made sense that he was the lead guy at first. Even after the first couple of games, the explosiveness of Johnson and Etienne, it was clear that as the season progressed, they would move up in the depth chart. Now they really are a very equal 1A and 1B option. You also have to throw in the fact that Anthony Richardson is a part of this run game. Early in the season, he had three rushing touchdowns in the first game against Utah. Then, he had a lull in terms of his rushing production because of the way the offense was being called. Now, in these last couple games, he has definitely become more productive on the ground. I would say right now that Florida has a three-headed monster in their backfield: Richardson, Etienne, and Johnson all rank in the top five in yards per carry in the conference. To have one player in that category is impressive, two is kind of insane, three is probably not heard of very often at all.

VH: Specifically on Etienne, he has had a great freshman season, but before last Saturday, he only had two runs that went for 20-plus yards. Tell me about what the energy in the building was like during his 85-yard house call. Is this explosiveness a sign of things to come?

Michael Hull: I was in the box for that game. Obviously the place just went nuts. It reminded me a lot of when La’Mical Perine broke a 90-yard touchdown run against Auburn in 2019. It didn’t get that loud, but it got pretty close. Etienne is just an explosive back. Maybe it runs in the family. His brother, Travis, tore it up at Clemson and is tearing it up in the NFL right now. The fact that Etienne is only a true freshman is a sign of great things to come. You can see, using the eye test, just how explosive and dangerous he is when he has the ball. He is really good at one cut, and go. If he can get the corner, he’s gone. You’ve seen that a few times this year, where Etienne makes a run that should be 5 yards into 20. He did that a few times in Week 1 against Utah, and people were like, “Florida might have something special here.” As the season has continued, it really hasn’t gone away.

VH: Anthony Richardson’s season has been packed with highs and lows, but he has shown more consistency in the past four weeks and has avoided turning the football over. It seems that if he can simply hone his talent, Richardson’s potential is off the charts. What do you expect from the redshirt sophomore going forward?

JH: Like you said, the year has been up-and-down. It’s definitely in an upswing right now over the last couple games. Just knowing from being in the room with his postgame, a lot of his confidence comes from turnovers. If he doesn’t turn the ball over, he’s confident. If he fumbles or throws an interception, it seems to rattle him. I think that still comes from the fact that he is a very young player. That’s just an area that he has to grow in. Once you go to the NFL, you can’t just totally deflate and become a shell of yourself in a game after you throw a pick. You have to get past that. It’s something that he’s gotten a little bit better at this season. The fact that Richardon and the Florida offense as a whole has played some clean games and strung those together over the last couple of the weeks is encouraging. Even when you look back to the loss to Georgia, they lost by multiple scores, but there’s still a handful of positives that you can draw from that. Richardson didn’t turn the ball over and Florida scored 17 unanswered points in the third quarter of that game against the No. 1 team in the nation. There’s been a lot of positives to draw the last couple of weeks, especially now that Florida is putting up results in the win column. A lot of it comes down to Richardson’s confidence, and he’s playing really confident right now. It’s a good time for it to happen for him and his career trajectory. A lot of the talk in Gainesville right now is if this is or is not the final two games plus a bowl game of Richardon’s Florida career. Will he go to the NFL or not? That’s something that we’re not going to really know until probably a couple weeks after the bowl game. It’s just an interesting situation right now. For Florida fans, it’s about getting to watch Richardon for these next couple of weeks, because it might be the last taste of his play that they get.

VH: The defense is scorching hot right now. Florida is ranked 15th in the nation and tied for first in the SEC in takeaways. What has been the key to this explosive defensive play?

JH: Florida and Billy Napier have put a lot of emphasis on the team’s ability to not only limit their own turnovers, but also on the team’s ability to create turnovers. The turnover margin is something that is important in football as a whole. If you have the turnover margin in your favor by one or two, that is enough to swing a game in your favor if it’s close. There were three fumbles in four plays recovered in the third quarter of the South Carolina game. Rashad Torrence was the first player in a couple years to force and then recover his own fumble, and then Desmond Watson did it two plays later. You had to have seen that picture of Watson stiff arming Spencer Rattler right in the face. A beautiful photo. There’s a lot of exciting young and veteran pieces on this defense. Ventrell Miller is having a fantastic year. He’s been a stud his entire time he’s been at Florida, but he’s really getting the recognition he deserves this season. Early in the year, when the defense was struggling, Miller was the lone star in the unit. Now, as the defense as a whole is coming into itself at the end of the year, the team is being boosted by players like Watson, Rashad Torrence, Gervon Dexter, Amari Burney and Trey Dean. They are playing their best defense that they’ve played all season, and it’s not even close.

VH: Ricky Pearsall has the second most targets on the Gators at 45, but has only managed to reel in 23. What will it take for Richardon and Pearsall to get on the same page?

JH: It really comes down to scheming and what types of plays they are running for Pearsall. He’s a really talented route runner. I would probably consider him the best route runner on the team right now. Against zone defenses, he’s able to just run routes and find the soft spot in the defense and kind of sit down in a pocket. When Richardon has time in the pocket, or is able to get outside of it and keep his eyes downfield, that’s when he and Pearsall have a really good connection. As far as scheming wise, a lot of crossing routes generate a lot of quality targets for Pearsall. As far as Pearsall catching around half the passes, I don’t really have a great answer for that. I wouldn’t say it’s an issue with drops or anything. That’s not something that I’ve noticed from Pearsall. I think there is a really good potential for them to keep it rolling going into the end of the season and then next year if Richardson stays. I’m excited to see what they can do. In the grand scheme of this offense right now, even though I would say Pearsall might be the most talented receiver in the room, he’s probably WR3 on this team behind Justin Shorter and Xzavier Henderson. Just the way the offense is schemed, Shorter is more of the downfield target. This is a team that also loves to run wide receiver screens and feed Henderson the ball on those kinds of plays. Henderson is out this weekend, so that could mean more targets and opportunities for Pearsall. That’ll be something to look for.

VH: Thoughts on Vanderbilt’s big win over Kentucky, a team that Florida lost to earlier in the season?

MH: I’ve been a big proponent of the Clark Lea movement and a big member of the Commodore Hive over the last few years. I, along with a student journalist from Georgia, Jack Duffy, host an SEC football podcast every week. At the start of the season, I made the prediction that Vanderbilt was going to double their win total from two to four. To be vindicated with an emotional win against Kentucky like that felt great. For Mike Wright to be able to come in after being benched earlier in the season and do what he needed to do to win was huge. Clark Lea has that team playing really good football right now, some of the best football that I’ve seen Vanderbilt play in a long time. The train is moving in the right direction, which is really good to see.

VH: Score prediction for Saturday?

JH: 42-17, Florida.

MH: I think it’ll be a little closer than that. I know the line is Florida -14. I do think they cover. I’m going to say 41-21, Florida.

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About the Contributor
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Sports Podcast Producer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
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