It was a loss. It happens. Thankfully for Gator fans they do not happen as often as they have in times past, which is a good thing although any loss against a hated rival is most certainly bad. This one will sting a while longer because it looks like it may be some time before the Gators get a chance to try to avenge this loss. Florida outplayed Miami in every aspect other than turnover margin and penalties but, unfortunately, those two categories had plenty to say about the outcome of the game. How many Gator fans complaining about the boring offense of a week earlier would have gladly accepted an ugly win and more boredom? Anyone? Bueller?
No matter how it happened, it was a brutal loss and while all losses look the same in the loss column, allow me to take a stab at explaining what it was NOT. It was NOT a horrible game by the Florida quarterback regardless of what you might have heard – 22-33, 291 yards with a touchdown pass and a TD run … how many of us would gladly take those stats every week? But there were the turnovers – two picks and a fumble – so from that point of view it definitely WAS a bad game. Nor was this game evidence that Driskel is not an SEC caliber quarterback, evidence that Florida’s running game has been derailed or the end of Gator football as we know it.
Please grasp this fact: It wasn’t even the end of the Gators championship aspirations for 2013 although there are issues that will have to be corrected for that to happen.
Let’s talk about some of the good things we saw against Miami. The Gator defense was everything it is hyped to be and then some. Florida’s front seven is capable of completely dominating large stretches of a football game. Dominique Easley, Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler are going to wreak havoc all season barring injury. The secondary is both solid and deep. True freshman Vernon Hargreaves III had his second interception in as many games and has the look of a potential superstar.
Last week I predicted one sustained drive by the Hurricane offense in each half. Miami had only one drive of more than six plays in the entire game while the Gators had five such drives. One UM touchdown came on a blown coverage and another was a gift thanks to a UF turnover inside the five. For the second straight week Florida held what was supposed to be a potent offense to just over 200 total yards.
It was the one long touchdown play that drew the ire of Coach Will Muschamp toward his defense, a play that changed the way the Gators approached the game offensively. Under Muschamp the plan has always been to establish the run early and pound away until the opponent wears down, unable to defend anymore. When Miami was able to put 14 early points on the scoreboard, the Gators were forced to open up the offense. Yes, the passing game produced 291 yards but Muschamp would have preferred boring. He would have much preferred to keep on pounding away with the running game so he never got control.
Now, make no mistake about it, those five turnovers cost Florida the game, but at least two and maybe three of them don’t if the Gators are able to move the ball on the ground against an increasingly winded Hurricane defense. That was and probably always will be the Muschamp game plan, which is why he expressed his displeasure with the first half defense in his post game remarks. The Muschamp plan is based on the defense playing well enough so that the offense isn’t required to take chances. Those two early scores forced Muschamp to leave his comfort zone.
Different coaches have different approaches. When Steve Spurrier was at Florida and Chip Kelley was at Oregon, they went into each game ready to ride their offenses to victory. When the offense struggled, they usually lost. Muschamp, Nick Saban and Les Miles take the approach that great defense and a running game wins. If their defenses struggle early, it usually leads to trouble. The reality is that both approaches work if you’ve got the right talent. Florida’s talent is mostly stacked on the defensive side.
This leads to where I believe at least some of the blame should be placed for the loss to Miami. When your philosophy is that the quarterback is 90% game manager, what happens if you have to ask him to become a game winner? For the most part, Driskel played exceptionally well against UM. He threw some great passes in the downfield game and while the announcers moaned a couple of times that Driskel could have thrown the ball to an open receiver elsewhere, they don’t know what the play call was or who the play was designed for. For all any of us know, Driskel might have made the right decision on every pass except the two that were picked off. Both interceptions were in situations where Driskel is being asked to be a game winner instead of a game manager.
As for the fumble, give him a pass. He was hit blind side as he brought the ball back. Now some might say he should have felt the defender coming, but you can spend too much time thinking about who’s rushing the passer and not enough time trying to find an open receiver.
So ask yourself this question: How many times has Jeff Driskel been in the position in the past where he was required to be a game winner? The answer is not enough to have the confidence and comfort level necessary to get the job done. When the Gators are winning the fourth quarter with the running game, all Driskel is required to do is hand the ball off or run occasionally. When they’re behind, the pressure is on him to produce with his arm and it was obvious against Miami that he’s not comfortable – at least at this point of his career – of making those plays at the end of the game.
Where does this leave the Florida Gators for the remainder of the 2013 season? Some fans have already bailed on the Gators and say “brace yourself for losing four of five games.” Funny, but I’ve heard that after every early season Florida loss going back more years than I care to remember. To those who see a falling sky, I’d like to remind them that Florida still has one of the best defenses in all of college football. There is talent on offense and if Driskel can do some growing up, the passing game is going to take teams out of their eight men in the box defensive game plan. That should open up a running game that has the potential to be really good with Matt Jones, Mack Brown and Valdez Showers. And what if Kelvin Taylor earns more playing time in practice? That will only strengthen a running game that certainly should average more than the 2.8 yards per carry we saw against Miami. That 2.8 per carry won’t cut it in the SEC.
The offensive line is going to have to improve, both in its run blocking and its ability to protect Driskel. Injuries have taken their toll starting with the training camp loss of Chaz Green but if smash mouth guard Jon Halapio can return for the Tennessee game and left tackle D.J. Humphries can rebound from that MCL problem, the Gators should be alright. If the injuries continue to be a problem, then this area of the team that was expected to be a strength might very well turn into a liability.
The other big concern is at wide receiver. Solomon Patton and Quinton Dunbar both produced 100-yard games against Miami and Trey Burton has been serviceable throughout his career, but none of those three have established credentials as playmakers. The situation is complicated by the lack of a go-to tight end. I wonder when we’ll see freshmen wide receivers Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fullwood emerge. If they don’t see the ball, we’ll never know what they can do. At which point do you trust them enough to throw the ball in their direction? The same could apply in the backfield to Kelvin Taylor. At some point, you’ve got to give the kids a chance to become playmakers.
It’s really too early to be asking if Florida can run the table these last 10 games but while that’s improbable, it’s not impossible. The SEC East doesn’t look as strong as in years past so the team that can improve each week and survive will have a chance to move on to Atlanta. Florida needs to make each week a one-game season. This is an off week and so the next one-game season is September 21 when Tennessee comes calling at The Swamp. It’s the SEC folks so the goal is simple: Survive and advance. Do that 10 more times and the Gators are in Atlanta.