Florida Gators lose to Arkansas in overtime, putting a bowl in doubt

GAINESVILLE — If Billy Napier’s Florida Gators tenure ends in failure, remember Saturday’s 39-36 overtime loss to Arkansas.

Remember how it went down, with a recurring set of calamities that have plagued the Gators (5-4, 3-3 SEC) through Napier’s underwhelming 23 months.

Remember the opponent, which entered Ben Hill Griffin Stadium winless in the SEC and with a brand-new offensive coordinator.

Remember what it probably cost Florida — a bowl game and, perhaps, worse.

“There’s a lot of blame to be spread out,” Napier said.

Beginning at the very top. The most damaging — and damning — part was that it was predictable. We’ve seen it all before through his 11-11 start.

A special-teams unit, again, changed the game the wrong way. Florida flubbed an extra point on a botched snap/hold in the third quarter and missed what would have been a 44-yard game-winner wide right.

The defense, again, struggled. It reverted to last year’s historically bad third-down form. An Arkansas offense that was 9 of 31 in that situation over its past two games converted on 8 of its 18 chances. That included a third-and-8 KJ Jefferson pass in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown. The rest of the time, the defense looked like Gators teams that gave up 39 points three weeks ago to South Carolina and 43 last week to Georgia. Florida couldn’t tackle Jefferson, left too many receivers open and failed to stop the final play —a 4-yard pass from Jefferson to Tyrone Broden.

The game management, again, bordered on game mismanagement. Florida burned a pair of timeouts on its first offensive drive of the fourth quarter to avoid delay-of-game penalties. That meant the Gators didn’t have them in the closing minute of regulation — a problem considering what happened with 8 seconds left. Napier said a player incorrectly thought he heard Florida’s order to run out the field goal team; his teammates followed, then had to backtrack. The illegal substitution cost Florida 5 yards, which fed into the missed kick.

“There’s no question that there was some confusion there …” Napier said. “That’s one that I haven’t been around before.”

The same is true for most everyone in Gainesville. The Gators haven’t been around something like this for a long time.

Though Arkansas (3-6, 1-5) has been a tough out, the Razorbacks were reeling. They fired offensive coordinator Dan Enos during their open date after a 7-3 loss at lowly Mississippi State and replaced him with receivers coach Kenny Guiton — a 32-year-old who played at Ohio State under Urban Meyer and had never called a play before Saturday. The Razorbacks scored more points in the first three minutes (14) than in their previous five quarters; their season-high 481 yards were 31 more than they amassed in their two previous games combined.

Granted, Florida was down three defensive starters (Shemar James, Cam Jackson and Tyreak Sapp), and the return of outstanding running back Raheim Sanders boosted Arkansas. Maybe you blame some of the missed tackles on the game-losing drive to youth or inevitable growing pains from a rebuilding process. Optimists can cite the two touchdowns by freshman receiver Eugene Wilson III (a Gaither High alumnus) and the sensational two-play sequence (41-yard catch, 26-yard touchdown run) by Trevor Etienne as encouraging signs for the future.

But they can’t cushion the fallout from a loss to an Arkansas team that Mississippi State’s first-year coach beat two weeks ago. They certainly don’t overshadow the big-picture concerns about where Florida’s headed.

The Gators must win at No. 13 LSU, at No. 14 Missouri or beat No. 4 Florida State at home to reach six victories. After Saturday’s showing — and everything else that preceded it — that’s hard to envision.

Barring an upset in one of those games, Florida’s young roster won’t get the benefit of extra reps through bowl practices. Considering how much Napier stresses the importance of development, failing to make a bowl game would be a devastating missed opportunity.

Perhaps Napier’s staff will be able to use that extra time on recruiting to preserve the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class. But that job will be significantly harder with Florida careening toward its first run of three consecutive losing seasons since 1945-47.

And that’s what makes Saturday’s loss so painful. In front of a sold-out home crowd of 89,782, on a big recruiting weekend, against an SEC cellar dweller and first-time coordinator, in a game the Gators desperately needed for bowl eligibility, Napier’s Gators got to the final play and lost.

It’s not hyperbolic to wonder if it’s a defeat his program can ever get over.

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