In a press conference following Florida’s loss to Arkansas 39-36, Graham Mertz and Ricky Pearsall shared their thoughts on the disappointing loss and the team’s performance. Both players acknowledged the frustration of the loss and the team’s determination to improve.
Q. Obviously disappointing result, finish at the swamp here. How do you keep this team together for the last three games do you think?
GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I think it’s not going to be a challenge to keep this team together. This team is so close. The love we have for each other, that’s something you build throughout the season. Obviously this is extremely disappointing, but this needs to fuel this team, and we’ll make sure it does.
Q. The run game has been kind of up and down the last few weeks. How much more pressure does that put on you guys when you’re not as balanced as you want to be?
GRAHAM MERTZ: I think anytime you go into a game, your focus is to be balanced. I think each game presents different challenges and opportunities, so it’s kind of a game to game — you’re going to go out there, you want to play balanced, and depending on what the defense does, you have to respond.
In every game you go into it with that mindset. I thought that tonight the guys ran hard. I thought they had a really good defense. We knew that going into the game. We knew we had to set our pads before the game. I thought the O-line did a good job, and we ran when we needed to run.
Q. Could you speak a little bit to the inconsistencies from the offense today to come out with back-to-back scores, then I believe five of six drives punts, then exchanging scores at the end. How frustrating is that?
GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I think we’re going to look back at the film, and I think we had a bunch of plays today, so just kind of right now I’m big picturing it, but a bunch of opportunities that we should have made that we didn’t.
Yeah, it’s frustrating. But I’m sure when you go back and look at the film, it’ll all make sense on what we didn’t do well, what we did well, and where we need to go.
Q. Talk about Trey’s continued emergence and Trevor getting in the mix pretty big again. It’s been a little bit for him. How key was that and nice to see, especially heading down the stretch in some games you guys were lucky enough to score some points?
GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I think Trevor — Trey, I’ve known Trey, he’s been like that since the day he got here. His emergence to everybody else, but I’ve known what kind of player he is and what he’s going to be for this place. It’s awesome. That driver that Trevor just kind of took over, I threw him a swing pass and he took it I don’t know how far and ran it in.
We definitely need to make plays. We know what’s ahead of us. We’re not shying away from that. We know we’ve got to make plays. We’ve got to play together. We’ve got to play hard. I think that’s something right in the front of our mind right now.
Q. I asked Billy his message to fans, preaching patience and all that. What are you hearing in the locker room, seeing, that you would kind of pull back the curtain for fans who are frustrated losing a game like that?
GRAHAM MERTZ: I don’t think there’s anybody more frustrated than the men on this team, the coaches on this team. I think that’s for any sport. The fans are obviously passionate, but this is our day-to-day, what we do. We want to win. It’s frustrating when you don’t win.
There’s no part of me that feels like, oh, moral victory. No. You lose the game. This flat-out was not acceptable. That’s how it should be in the locker room.
Now all you can do after you do lose a game is look at the facts on how to win the next one. For me, I’m so focused on the weekly process, the game to game, that I don’t look in the future, I look right now, what we need to do right now to win the football game. We didn’t win today. That’s on us. But no one is more frustrated than we are as players.
I’m sure everybody will have an opinion about it, but we flat-out did not make enough plays today, and I’m sure the film will say that.
Q. On that, is there anything in particular that stands out to you that can maybe lead to more consistency, or is there any element that you think of immediately that’s like, we really need to do this in order to get where we want to be?
GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I think we just need to play as one. We need to move as one unit in all three phases.
We need all 11 each play to make the play. It’s a challenge in the SEC, but that’s got to be the focus of all 11 moving as one in each unit.
Q. Is there an element to the youth of this team that you think might be a factor on a week-to-week basis in terms of there are growing pains that come with having a lot of freshmen and sophomores on the field?
GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, we are young, but I think I said this earlier in the week. I’m proud of how the guys have matured through the season. Coming from the game last week, we knew we had to respond, and it didn’t finish the way we wanted, but you start the game 14-0, back against the wall, and I thought the guys responded to that, which was a good sign.
But the guys are maturing. That’s what I’d say to that.
Q. On a little bit of a different note, Billy had said despite the loss, you guys during the week, with the Salute Those Who Serve week, learned a lot of important lessons. Can you touch on what some of those lessons are, especially what you learned from James Slayton who ran on the field with you guys?
GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, we learned a ton. That’s one thing that coming from this game that I’ll hold on to for a really long time, honestly for the rest of my life. Like you said, James is awesome. When he got up there and just talked to the guys, the passion, the fire he had for the career path that he chose, to serve us.
I can say that on my end I woke up every day just a little bit more juiced up, a little bit more thankful, a little bit more blessed to do this every single day. I’ll hold that close to my heart every single day and know that this is a blessing and to treat it as such, and I’ve said that so many times, but this was a really good reminder that just as human beings and as Americans we are so blessed to have what we have, and to play a sport like this. Yeah, it was a big week on that end.
Q. You guys did fall behind 14-0, but do you think the energy was a little bit different because of that when the game started, that, the black jerseys, there was some hype leading into the game? Do you think the team’s energy level was a little different because of that?
GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I think — one thing I will say about this team is I’m glad to say that they’re juiced going into every game. I think that’s one thing that we had to learn that especially with an early start time you’ve got to bring your own juice. We learned that lesson at Kentucky, and I thought the guys had a better reply today or response today.
Yeah, I think the meaning behind it is awesome. I thought the guys were definitely fired up about the black uniforms. But in the end, you’ve just got to make more plays, score more points than the other team. It’s frustrating.
Q. I want to talk a little more about the emergence of your teammate Eugene Wilson because it seemed to have started with the Georgia game last week that he’s targeted a little more. How much is that taking the pressure off of you?
RICKY PEARSALL: Well, first off, Trey Wilson, he’s a tremendous player. He’s a really gifted player. Then I also have faith in everybody in the receiving room, so I think anybody in the receiving room can step up and make those big-time plays, but to highlight him, he’s doing a really good job, so shout-out to him.
Q. How were you able to — you have the fumble on the first drive but you seemed to put that away, made some bigger plays. What’s going through your mind during the fumble and how did the offense rally around each other down 14-0 early?
RICKY PEARSALL: Yeah, it was a tough one, and I think it just shows how close this team is together, too, because as soon as that happened, as soon as I got to the sideline I was greeted by my teammates, next play, next play, keep your head up. I’m thankful for them, but that’s the game of football right there. One-play mentality, next-play mentality. I’ve got to leave that in the past, just like life. Sometimes you have adversity and you’ve just got to push through it.
Q. Sometimes one loss can bleed into another week. Did you feel like the result last week had any effect this week, and how do you put this one aside before you go on to road to play LSU next week?
RICKY PEARSALL: No, I don’t think this was because of our last loss at all. We go to work every single week and practice. Coach Napier and all the rest of the coaching staff gets us right every practice, and I don’t think it led to that at all, and obviously we’ve got to put this loss behind us, too, and get right back to work.
Q. Is there anything in particular that you think stands out to you that’s maybe been restrictive over the last couple weeks that maybe you guys need to solve in order to really take that next step forward and get the results you want?
RICKY PEARSALL: Yeah, I think when we go back and we look at film, there’s going to be all kinds of things that we could definitely do better, but I also think there’s going to be some good things on tape, too, that we can take advantage of and continue to move on and keep at that.
I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I can give you an answer to, but that’s football. There’s going to be things that you can do better and things that you’ve already done good that you can expand on.
Q. Your punt returning was really great today. What were you seeing out there and the ability to get that going? What went into that?
RICKY PEARSALL: Yeah, I saw on tape that I would have opportunities to catch some punts and return some punts. I knew I had to take advantage of that. Whenever the opportunity came, they kind of gave us some low kicking balls, so I was like, I’ve got some time, and then they were rolling and I’d catch it off the hop. My teammates do a good job blocking for me.
Q. This offense struggled for a few quarters here, did get it going in the fourth. Do you feel like you guys have shown and are confident that you can get in some shootouts, because they’re coming it looks like?
RICKY PEARSALL: Yeah, I think it’s just the same mentality every time we go out on to the field is we’ve got to score. I think something that I feel like we need to do a better job at is winning the 1st down. We’ve got to make sure that we get positive gains on the 1st down and get us going.
Q. Jayden Daniels you have familiarity with?
RICKY PEARSALL: Mm-hmm.
Q. You’ve seen the season he’s having. How do you go toe-to-toe with a guy like that?
RICKY PEARSALL: Yeah, he’s one of my close buddies. We still talk to this day, and he’s a super talented dude. He’s putting a lot on tape. I’m extremely proud of him, and obviously he’s putting the world on notice. He’s an extremely gifted kid.
Q. The emotion of the final drive in regulation, I’m curious, you get it to a point where Trey could win it and he’s been obviously very consistent for you but he misses it. Did it bleed at all into the OT drive or what were your thoughts about the execution of that first drive where you guys had to settle for a field goal?
RICKY PEARSALL: Yeah, no, I think Trey does a really good job of kicking the football. Sometimes he makes them, sometimes you miss them. That’s just the reality. Just like how I fumbled earlier in the game. We all went behind him and made sure that he kept his head up, and next-play mentality. He’s going to get another opportunity to go out there and kick, and in overtime obviously he made a field goal. I don’t think it bled into that at all. I think we can play all day long and have the same mentality.
Q. You’re not a fumbler; I think that’s the first time you’ve fumbled since you’ve been here. Would you explain what happened on that play? Nobody saw it, and all of a sudden, did the guy just rip it out on what?
RICKY PEARSALL: Yeah, I made a mistake, went to cut back inside and obviously tried to make something happen, but I kind of lifted the ball up a little bit too much, and when I was making that cut back, I felt his hand actually go inside in the pocket of my arm, and I was actually trying to get down after that, but they kind of kept me up a little bit, and then he just ripped it out. He made a really good play on it.
Q. What was this whole week like with all the events going on for the Salute Those Who Serve and what Sergeant Slayton taught you guys — running out on the field but taught you guys during the week? What were those things?
RICKY PEARSALL: Yeah, we had a lot of guys come in and talk to the team after practice. It’s just a different level of respect. They try to obviously come out there and try to compare it to football, but it doesn’t compare at all. It’s life or death for them. We obviously have the most upright respect for those guys that came and talked to us, and we learned a bunch of good things, all the things basically on the back of our jersey.
Q. Billy said it was probably lessons you guys are going to take for the rest of your lives. Would you agree with that?
RICKY PEARSALL: Oh, yeah, for sure. Everything they talked about after practice was all life lessons that we can take and move through life with. Extremely blessed to be able to get that opportunity to listen to them.
Q. Billy said earlier this week that Caleb Douglas was making some progress toward a return. What can he do to make you guys more dynamic?
RICKY PEARSALL: For sure. CD is an extremely talented kid, as well. He helps the deep ball a lot. He’s a guy that can go up and get the ball, and we’re going to be excited when he gets to come back. He’ll give us some depth, too, and another playmaker out on the field.
Photo by Gabriella Whisler, UAA Communications