3 things learned from Gators’ rout of FCS foe McNeese State

Florida’s 49-7 win against McNeese ended a four-game losing streak and provided a much-needed confidence boost.

Coach Billy Napier’s team now turns its attention a visit from No. 9 Tennessee (2-0) to open SEC play.

Here are three things we learned Saturday night in the Swamp:

Austin Armstrong’s defense is trending, but will be tested by Vols

As he made his way to the south end zone tunnel, the high-energy 30-year-old stopped, shook hands and uttered one word: “Tennessee.”

A chess match awaits with offensive mastermind Josh Heupel, whose Vols should face greater resistance than during a 38-33 win last year in Knoxville.

The Gators (1-1) have allowed just 384 yards in two games, including just 114 to woeful McNeese. The Cowboys (0-2) crossed midfield just once and averaged just 2.8 yards on 40 plays.

UF’s defense is more stout up front, faster at linebacker, experienced at cornerback and infused with plenty of promising young players.

“There’s a lot of young cats running around out there,” Napier said.

Despite 2022’s struggles under Patrick Toney, who left to coach safeties for the Arizona Cardinals, Armstrong kept the staff and much of the scheme intact.

“It’s Year 2 in the system for players and also for that staff,” Napier said. “Then obviously Austin has done a good job of connecting with players, connecting with the staff, putting his spin on things.”

Armstrong would like to see a lot more than two sacks through eight quarter. The Gators also have zero takeaways after forcing 22 a year ago.

But the Gators’ improved depth, aggression and athleticism will give Heupel plenty to ponder.

Ricky Pearsall has seized the reins

The future is promising a cadre of young pass-catchers, yet Pearsall showed the Gators who’s boss on his 23rd birthday.

Pearsall exhibited his toughness after he was drilled by a defender to knock the wind out of him at the end of an 19-yard catch along the sideline. He held onto the ball, quickly exited the game to gather himself and returned after two plays. On the next series, Graham Mertz found Pearsall for 12 yards on 3rd-and-10 to sustain UF’s fourth straight touchdown drive to open the game.

In the second half, Pearsall torched his man on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Mertz as the two veterans continue to develop timing and chemistry.

“I have full trust in him,” Pearsall said. “He has full trust in me. It’s always good when we hit on a big play like that.”

Mertz finished 14 of 17 for 193 yards, going 6 of 7 for 123 yards to Pearsall as McNeese’s defense looked to eliminate explosive pass plays.

“They were playing three high,” Pearsall said. “So it was kind of hard to get some passes in there.”

First-year freshman Eugene Wilson III, making his first start, continued to flash his explosiveness. He finished with 54 yards on five touches, highlighted by an 18-yard run. During his first college action, Orlando freshman Aidan Mizell caught two passes for 25 yards.

Meanwhile, sophomore starter Caleb Douglas did not make a reception.

When push comes to shove in the passing game the ball will be going Pearsall’s way.

Gators clean up their act

Killer penalties and head-scratching miscues cost Florida a chance during a Week 1 loss at Utah.

While McNeese would need a miracle to win in the Swamp, a botched extra-point attempt brought a sense of déjà vu after UF’s first scoring drive. A subsequent offsides call on the Cowboys’ first drive by Princely Umanmielen on 3rd-and-7 continued the veteran edge rusher’s shaky start to 2023.

From there, though, the Gators pulled it together and did not let the sloppiness snowball like in Salt Lake City.

A late fumble by walk-on tailback Eddie Battle cost UF its first shutout in 21 games, but was the only turnover.

“Pretty clean day for the most part,” Napier said.

While quality opponent certainly magnifies an opponent’s mistakes, the Gators overall operation from Week 1 to Week 2 still was like night and day.

“I told the players in the locker room, I appreciate the response that we saw after last week,” Napier said.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at