I know that everyone in Gator Nation, and in the SEC for that matter, is pointing at this week’s game at LSU as the week that the Gator season “gets real,” but watching this team the last three weeks rebound again and again from adversity, losing multiple team leaders for the season, and every team giving them their best shot (because no matter how far up or down the Florida program is, the Gators are still overall the most hated and the most red-ink-circled opponent on SEC schedules across the league), I have had the feeling that this season got real for our players a long time ago. So maybe as the kids say these days, this Saturday it “gets realer.” But first, this past Saturday was very real: Real fun, real satisfying and another real mark in the “W” column.
The Two Big Stories of the Game
The two biggest stories of the night in Gainesville dovetailed unexpectedly. The first story was that Tyler Murphy took on his largest burden of passing responsibility yet, and got the job done once again at the highest level. The second story of course was the almost shocking manner in which the Gators lost the line of scrimmage battle, with the defense being pushed around in the first quarter and the offensive line never taking over in the run game the entire night. But these factors played straight into the Tyler Murphy story because as he has been such an ample game manager the last two weeks (Coach Muschamp’s words, not mine), the question was still dangling out there about whether he could perform at the same level if the onus of moving the ball and scoring points was put squarely on his right arm should the defense and/or running game fail to show up one week. Well, the defense took their time getting off the bus, the running game never fully reported for work, and Tyler’s arm took over the game for Florida.
While he was not as accurate as he had been the previous week against Kentucky, we were able to see subtle advances in his game beyond just throwing the ball more as the primary offensive weapon. Lost in the conversation of the awesome catch and run for a touchdown by Solomon Patton (no, the OTHER awesome catch and run for a touchdown), is the fact that Murphy put that ball on a rope into tight coverage, low and away like a good slider-ball pitcher keeping the ball away from the batter (or in this case, the pass-batter) so that only Solomon Patton could catch it. Patton did what receivers are supposed to do – scooped up the incisive dart and hit the bricks.
The other story of the game was half-sorted out when Muschamp and staff bit a sizeable chunk of real estate out of the Gator linebacker corps and they started doing what they call in London, “minding the gap.” The other half – the offensive line – will continue to be a work in progress, but it bears remembering that this was a formidable defensive front, definitely the best Florida has faced this year.
After shoring up gap responsibilities, the defense settled back into their usual dominant idiom. While statistically the worst game of the year, the Gators still held the run-dominant Hogs to nearly half their season average rushing offense (53%), 14 yards below their passing average and 140 yards below their total yards per game average. Most importantly the Gator D held them to a third of their season’s scoring average.
And as mentioned with respect to assignment football, the early lapses in this game were matters of discipline, not ability or matchups. While Arkansas tallied 17 first downs on the night – 5 more than any other opponent has managed against the Gators – four of them were via penalty (only six were surrendered by UF via penalty in the previous four games combined). While they surrendered 55 more total yards than their next best opponent this year, most of those yards were gained after a drive was extended by a careless penalty.
Saturday marked the 12th-straight game in which the Gator defense has held a SEC opponent to 20 points or less, dating back to 2011. You may be tired of me repeating this statistic every week, but as long as the streak continues, I will continue to update it because it is just that important. Across the SEC, the status quo remains: Alabama has a streak of 1-straight and the rest of the conference has zero straight.
Don’t Look Now, But…
Yes, despite the oft-repeated refrain that the modern Gators simply don’t do this: Florida just blew out their third-straight SEC opponent and fourth foe in five games this year. Sure they have not been Oregon- or Baylor-type scores, but three-score games against SEC opponents are blowouts. Double-digit wins when your offense scores 30 points or more are blowouts. It may not be the pinball scores some fans are seeking, but it is significant for a Muschamp strategy and perhaps even a step in that direction.
On Freshmen Playing (or Not)
A few words on the chatter from our Swamp Gas message boards about freshmen playing and not playing… The latest homage to Nelson Mandela (on insult, depending on your perspective) is the dual “Free Kelvin Taylor”, “Free Demarcus Robinson” campaigns. But conspiracy theories aside, there is something to the idea out there that Champ is playing favorites. In that his favorites are those who earn their playing time the way he wants them to earn it.
That doesn’t begin and end with simply being the best or most talented player at each position.
Champ is building a machine at Florida and the machine is going to be operated by elite athletes with blue collar work ethics, or it will not be operated at all. Most true freshmen do not have a good work ethic when he came to Florida, or any other elite school. That does not necessarily mean to say that they have bad work ethics – just not the level that is expected by Coach Muschamp and his staff. It take most Baby Gators time to develop the right work habits. In high school, they were all Big Men On Campus; big plays and big success came easy to them. They primarily lived off their natural talents and never really had to put in extra time and do the dirty work. Not many of the elite high school players are blue collar workers because they never had to be. At UF and at the top of the SEC, however everyone was Big Men On Campus in high school and no one gets by anymore on natural talent alone. Not in the SEC. It is not a condemnation of the freshmen; just a natural fact of life for 95% of them.
It seems apparent that before you see the field at Florida, Champ makes you pay your dues and prove you can and will do the grunt work before you get to do the glamour work (Meyer enforced the same policy while at UF; Spurrier did not; Zook hit high score on Ski-ball once). Simply being the most gifted runner, the fastest and best pass catcher, the best blocker, etc., is not enough unless there is a depth problem that forces the issue. If a player is only proficient at one thing – even if that one thing is making explosive plays with the ball in his hands – Champ does not want to insert him into the game where the defense will always know what the play is going to be (e.g., running plays only for backs who can’t block; deep fly patterns only for receivers who can’t block or run precise routes, etc.).
Muschamp is building a machine. He won’t put any parts into the machine until they have tested out as high quality parts in every respect – not just in one or two facets of performance. By doing this at every position, he is ensuring the toughest, most complete team is on the field every Saturday. Maybe not the team that will score the most points or have the most highlight reel clips, but the one that will win the most games and make the fewest game-blowing errors. By taking this path, he does not prevent any of those great playmakers from developing and rounding out their game and becoming exceptional all-SEC talents when they do see the field. When they are ready. Completely ready.
Random SEC Observations
So much for all the talk about the great Ole Miss Bears.
I do not envy Steve Spurrier’s position with Mister Clowney. If Steve wants to keep his team’s respect, he has to bring some force to the issue; if he wants to keep attracting players of Clowney’s caliber, he has to be sensitive to the fact that these straight-to-the-NFL rarities don’t want to end their careers in a college uniform. Knowing Steve, however it is safe to say that Clowney had better make himself healthy and available soon or he will be invited to watch the rest of the season from the student lounge.
Missouri had been the quietest 4-0 team in the nation by far, with lowly Indiana being the powerhouse of their opening quad of opponents, but they finally got my attention with their win over Vandy Saturday. The Commodores are not as strong this year as recent seasons, and they are winless in the conference, but they are still a solid squad, and when someone goes to Nashville and gets after the ‘Dores to the tune of 51 points, that makes a statement. It will be very interesting to see what happens when the Tigers roll it out between the hedges this week. And not just as a barometer for what we will be facing the following week in Columbia, but as a legitimate threat to do what Tennessee couldn’t do: finish the drill and take down the perpetually disaster-flirting Dawgs. The last two weeks have been titanic drains on the Bulldog team, both in physical terms and mental terms after losing at least two more contributing players from their offense for the season. Knowing that UF must beat them to get to Atlanta anyway – or just to keep our pride after two-straight losses in Jacksonville – part of me wants them to keep winning and let it be Florida who takes them down and rips out their SEC heart this year…but most of me wants them to lose every week, so we’ll go with that.
And speaking of Georgia…
Of Champs and Chumps
You would have to search far and wide to find two coaches as different in style and methods as Will Muschamp and Mark Richt. Another stark differentiator between the two grabbed the mic this weekend and belted out a telling tune. Georgia lost four players to injury in their game against Tennessee, and at least two of the players have been lost for the season, and a third will miss time and await further tests to determine how much time. Mark Richt’s response to the injuries? A one-word answer: “Heartbreaking,” When asked to expound, he said, “It’s sad for our players,” Richt said. “You see them work so hard and get into position to play for Georgia and realize their dreams of wanting to play in big games like that and try to win championships and all that. There is so much work put in and they play so hard for you and work and practice and all that. When you want to play like that and it’s taken away from you, it’s just very heartbreaking. I don’t know what hurts more, the pain of the injury or knowing you’re not going to get to play anymore for a while. I just feel bad for them.”
No really. That was the head coach of the #7 team in the nation speaking. The man charged with fueling this short-handed team to Eastern Division, SEC and national titles despite the setbacks. It is unknown whether he dabbed his eyes with a pink tissue and bit his bottom lip.
Contrast that to Will Muschamp’s response to a far more serious injury than losing the backup tailback and one of many receivers in the rotation. He lost his starting quarterback for the season, and his first comments to the press after the game were, “Tyler Murphy will be our starting quarterback. Jeff’s going to be out for the season… Disappointed for Jeff, but one man’s misfortune’s another man’s opportunity and Tyler’s going to step up and play well for the Gators.” He later expounded on a personal level: “Very disappointed for Jeff. It’s part of the game but it’s very difficult to deal with, and I’m really hurt for him and his family and for us as a football team.” A couple days later when Champ lost the best player on the team, defensive MVP Dominique Easley for the season, Champ again did not muddle in sentimentality. He said some nice comments about Easley and his family but added they will marshal on in his absence and deferred to defensive coordinator DJ Durkin, who added some kind words punctuated with this: “With all that being said, he’s a part of a whole team of guys….We plan for (injuries) everywhere and that’s why guys want to play on defense.”
Richt has always had the label of being too soft to be a true championship caliber coach. He’s worked hard to earn that label. However, the going mantra in Athens this off-season is that he had turned a corner. In a year following a near-miss at the SEC and national titles, a year in which Mark Richt is supposed to be stepping up and singing a different tune, the only chorus I hear is that of The Wallflowers’ “The Difference”:
The only difference
That I see
That you are exactly the same
As you used to be
This is why after Jeff Driskel and Dominique Easley – the most critical players on offense and defense – were lost for the season, atop of a laundry list of significant injuries already holding a handful of starters out for multiple games (and two more of them gone for the year before the season began), the Gator squad did not miss a beat and in fact has even improved in some areas. And when UGA’s injuries hit, they had to rely on the luck of the stars and the careless grip of a Tennessee running back to subdue an atrociously bad Volunteer team that just two weeks earlier was dominated by the Gators on the day they lost their starting signal caller.
It’s the difference that will see Will Muschamp tally up many championships over his Florida coaching career, while Mark Richt continues to coddle his players to sleep on their soft goose down pillows with no championship rings to wake up to.
Heading to Red Stick
This is a very difficult game to get a read on. Mostly because both the Florida Gators and LSU Tigers are so far away from the teams that they were supposed to be when the season started. It is difficult to know where they are in their developmental arcs right now, they are both in such flux.
I do know that the Arkansas running game is better than LSU’s, and UF shut down the razorbacks after a couple series and getting our assignment discipline straightened out. I know that both the Arkansas and Tennessee offensive lines are better than LSU’s, and UF shut down their running games and got good pressure their quarterbacks, forcing a lot of turnovers in the passing and running games. I also know that Murphy has found a serious comfort zone in the Gator passing game and the LSU back-7 are young, undisciplined, often confused and very vulnerable. I know that Arkansas’s run defense is better than LSU’s (the stats suggest maybe as much as twice as good), and UF still out-rushed the Hogs in the Gators’ worst running game of the year.
On a macro level, the match-ups appear to favor Florida, since the LSU strength (offense, particularly passing offense) plays into the Florida strength (defense, accented by the best secondary in the nation), and the LSU weakness (defense) is vulnerable to significant predation from the Gators’ most upwardly-trending (perhaps even surging) unit, their offense. The Tigers gave up 26 to MSU Saturday, the team that scored 23 against Auburn and Oklahoma State combined. They’re giving up 25 points a game, which is outright awful for a Les Miles defense – especially considering there is a 17-point game by UAB and a 13-point outing by Kent in the mix.
This game may come down to stability. LSU is stable on offense – where UF can neutralize them to some extent, perhaps a large extent. But on defense, they are as unstable as a radioactive isotope with daddy issues. Meanwhile, on the Florida side, you don’t get any more stable than the Gator defense, and on offense, the unit that moved the ball at will in its first two games has cut out most of the turnovers and penalties in its last three to become a very stable unit to complement the staggering defense. To see if that will be enough to win in Death Valley West under the sun, where the crowd is much less a factor than under cloak of night, we’ll just have to wait and see. Until then remember that life is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.