The first game of the season can be tricky. With eight months in-between games, filled with only practices going up against your own teammates it’s easy to fixate on your first opponent and over prepare or overthink the gameplan.
First game jitters can also affect a team, especially one who is starting a season with a brand new coaching staff, each player trying to make a good impression in the first opportunity they have to impress the coaching staff under the bright lights of game day.
The Florida Gators defense was victim to several of these things, jitters and maybe even was over prepared for their opponent in New Mexico State. Florida, who has called themselves the best defense in the nation, surrendered 201 yards of offense in the first half last Saturday to an opponent that was vastly overmatched on the field.
“Coming out, first game, we had little bit of pregame jitters and stuff was moving, not too fast, but just a little bit faster,” defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. said.
The Aggies also caught the gators off guard with some offensive plays and packages that they hadn’t shown on tape in 2014. That kept Florida’s defense off balance and allowed for the Aggies to get more than 100 yards on three big plays, as well as capitalize off of a turnover down near the red zone.
“Defensively, [we] gave up some things kinda early,” Jim McElwain said on Monday. “I think they did some things, which obviously happens in first games, that we hadn’t seen.”
It was far from the first half that Geoff Collins expected to have and he made sure to adjust to what the Aggies were doing with his players in the locker room. The Gators kicked off the ball to start the second half and Collins made sure to let his defense know that they would be setting the tone for the rest of the game with their first defensive stand coming out of the locker room.
On the first play of the third quarter, senior defensive lineman Jon Bullard broke into the backfield off of a stunt and sacked quarterback Tyler Rogers for a six-yard loss. An illegal block on second down negated a one-yard gain and forced the Aggies into second and long. Jeremi Powell broke into the backfield and stopped Aggie running back Larry Rose III for a two-yard loss on second down and Rogers’ third down pass fell to the ground incomplete. A loss of 17 yards (including the penalty) on the drive and a three and out.
“I think it speaks volumes for the adjustments we made at halftime on that side of the ball, and really more so the adjustments our players made to hold a team to whatever, one yard or not many yards in that second half,” McElwain said.
Not many yards is wrong, actually. The Florida Gators defense held New Mexico State to negative one yard in the second half, completely terminating an offense that, at halftime, was on pace to gain over 400 yards.
Credit is due to Collins for not only making some halftime adjustments but also for being able to calm his team down in the locker room. No defense wants to give up 200 yards in a half, especially a defense with a singular goal of being knows as the best in the land.
New Mexico State’s offense didn’t really pose a true threat to Florida but Saturday the Gators will be tested by East Carolina’s spread offensive attack. The Pirates offense, led by seniors Shane Carden and Justin Hardy lit up Florida’s defense for 536 yards of total offense including 427 passing yards (the second most the Gators surrendered all season in both categories). The Pirates rattled off 101 plays at a mind-numbing pace that Florida simply had trouble keeping up with at times. If not for three turnovers, the Birmingham Bowl trophy might be sitting in Greenville rather than Gainesville.
“I know they’re going to be coached well. They’ve got a great coaching staff over there, they like the Air Raid offense,” sophomore cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “They put up a lot of yards on us last year but we got key turnovers in the red zone. I know they’re going to be coached well and I know they have some pretty good guys at receiver.”
The Gators are preparing for their second game against ECU in just over eight months. ECU lost then starting quarterback Kurt Benkert to a right knee injury in August, but new starting quarterback Blake Kemp threw for 230 yards (141 yards under ECU’s average a season ago) on 29-of-37 passing against Towson in a 28-20 victory.
Florida’s has a chip on their shoulder because of the way ECU moved the ball on them a year ago and on Saturday they’re looking forward to knocking that chip off.