UF’s Billy Napier accepts criticism of 4th-down decision, defends call in Gators’ loss to Georgia

GAINESVILLE — Upon further review, Florida coach Billy Napier understands why some might criticize his ill-fated, momentum-shifting fourth-down decision during the Gators’ lopsided loss to Georgia.

“I can see both sides of it,” he said Monday.

Napier himself does not question his play call gone bad.

Instead, he doubled-down nearly 48 hours after a 43-20 rout by the nation’s top-ranked team.

“That play would have worked,” he said. “To get real specific about what happened, it was just one of those things, right? Sometimes the ball bounces your way, sometimes it doesn’t. I think more about you punt it, it’s 10-7.

“At that point in the game, that’s what I think about. I don’t necessarily think about the play call.”

The call was all many Florida fans could think about or discuss following the Gators’ third straight loss to the Bulldogs and sixth in the past seven meetings.

Facing fourth-and-1, if that, Graham Mertz stepped under center and center Kingsley Eguakun snapped the ball between his QB’s knees to tailback Trevor Etienne several yards deep in the backfield, where Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon immediately corralled him for a 3-yard loss to set up a quick Bulldogs touchdown.

Napier’s bold move, the Gators’ poor execution and Georgia’s relentless response ignited a head-spinning turn of events. The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns in seven plays and blocked a punt for a safety while Florida (5-3, 3-2 SEC) closed the half with a fumble, three punts and just one first down on four possessions.

Whether Napier’s fourth-down gamble was the right move at the right time, the blowback when it failed was no surprise to him.

After all, the 44-year-old arrived from Louisiana in December 2021 with a reputation for daring fourth-down play calls and their consequences. During a halftime TV interview Napier uttered what became his signature phrase, “Scared Money Don’t Make Money,” after a fourth-down call led to a touchdown.

“Ultimately you get judged on the outcome of those decisions,” he said Monday. “When it works, everybody pats you on the back. When it doesn’t work, they throw you out in the trash.”

The Gators finished 0-for-2 on fourth down against the Bulldogs and sit 7 of 17 for the season, a 41.18% success rate that ranks 10th in the 14-team SEC and 94th of 133 teams nationally. In 2022, Florida was 15 of 22 (46.88%) to rank 11th in the league and 86th in the nation.

Tricks plays were going to be a high-risk proposition vs. Georgia’s SEC-leading defense.

“The one thing I noticed was discipline,” tight end Hayden Hansen said Monday. “They didn’t fall for the reverses. They didn’t fall for the hard counts.”

Napier, however, stands by his analytic-based methods and logic.

“It’s more of a big-picture approach,” he said. “I do think that we work hard at it. It’s not just a singular event on game day. It’s more of a holistic approach that we spend a ton of time on in the offseason relative to strategy.

“I think it’s sound. I do. You’re seeing it at all levels of football. We just have access to information that we didn’t have before … the analytics, the technology that’s available, we can basically analyze the history of the game and tell you exactly why it’s beneficial to do at times.”

Yet, Napier also allows for a human element, accounting for gut instinct and inevitably spurring a stomach-turning aftermath if his decision fails.

“There’s some subjectiveness to it relative to the current dynamic within the game,” he said. “Those are the things that keep you up at night.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at