Well, this was a typical case of getting beaten by the better team. But as many have pointed out, it stings a little more than usual because Florida was beaten at its own game. LSU owned both lines of scrimmage, nudged out to a small lead, simply sat it and smothered the UF offense the rest of the way to go home with the modest but potent win.
No Big Shock
Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the opponent has a national title-winning coach and staff and a roster of elite players working just as hard as ours to win the game.
When the rivalry games come up and when a team’s back is against the wall as LSU’s was after losing to Georgia, they often play over their heads like LSU’s defense did Saturday. Georgia’s defense certainly did it against Florida last year and Florida did it against FSU last year. Happens constantly in sports. Sometimes losses happen that you just cannot explain. Like unranked Utah beating Number 5 Stanford, or unranked Texas drubbing Number 12 Oklahoma. Then there are so many other upsets that are not astounding but still make little sense, like unranked Wisconsin annihilating Number 19 Northwestern, unranked Penn State beating Number 18 Michigan, Number 25 Missouri eviscerating Number 7 Georgia between the hedges, or unranked Ole Miss almost beating Number 9 Texas A&M. All of those happened on one single Saturday.
But losing to LSU Saturday was no surprise. It should have been expected. LSU was ranked number 10 with its only loss coming to number 7 Georgia in a nail-biter on the road. They were playing at home in a grudge match, carrying a lot of bitterness against the Gators all year since being emasculated by them last year, physically beaten and humbled man-to-man. The Tigers were favored to win by seven points – that’s an enormous number for any team to be favored over Florida. Although there were several angles through which matchups appeared to possibly favor Florida, truth is the LSU program has been in a mature reload position for several years, since before Les Miles’s tenure even began, whereas Florida has not regained that level yet since Urban Meyer broke the program, and has only been building on an invested team for a year and a half. At this point, the Gator team simply was not up to the task of winning a road game against a top-10 team with the unusually large number of starters missing for the season, and a high number playing injured or recently returning from injury. There is only one other team in the nation that can even compare to Florida’s run of bad luck in terms of missing head-shaking volumes of key personnel due to injury this year – Georgia – and they just lost at home Saturday to a team that was mortifyingly abysmal last year and had not beaten a single quality opponent this year. It seemed shocking to watch them lose, but it should have been expected.
The same is true for Florida’s loss to LSU.
The Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
There really is no silver lining apparent right now. Fact is, despite injuries and depth issues all over the roster, the primary problem Saturday was that the whole Gator team failed to answer LSU’s intensity, execution or effort Saturday. Nobody on the team stepped up and made a play. Nobody on the team refused to let their man beat them. That will happen sometimes when you play a slaughterhouse SEC schedule. However, certain truths were learned Saturday. Truths that we feared for weeks heading into the difficult stretch of the schedule. Truths that will not go down smoothly, even with a spoonful of sugar. The incomparable Elvis Costello once penned, “One day you’re going to have to face a deep dark truthful mirror; And it’s going to tell you things that I still love you too much to say.” While I love the Gators too much to say it, the deep dark truthful mirror revealed enough Saturday to write this:
1) Our offensive line may be riddled with injury, suffering badly from playing multiple starters out of position to cover the injuries, and myriad other negative impacts, but the bottom line is that this unit is ineffective against bad-to-decent defenses and as we saw against LSU, painfully inept against fast, strong, athletic defenses. Some of the competitive margin can be explained away by LSU’s cornered-tiger surge, but taking away that and all other intangible influences, this offensive line is simply bad at run blocking and pass blocking. For those fans that are tired of boring offense, that will never change until the offensive line gets a lot better. For those who wish we would open up the offense more out of competitive obligation, that will also never happen — it CAN never happen — until the line gets a lot better. For those fans who want Florida to return to SEC and national elite and start winning championships again — I think that encompasses all of us — this will never happen again without our OL getting much, much better in every facet of its job and performance.
2) Our defensive line is not going to compensate for the loss of Dominique Easley. The hope was that while we could never replace what he did himself, we could compensate and adjust from many sources to replace a lot of his production through other means. For the second-straight week, it was apparent that we are not the same defense, let alone defensive line, with #2 missing. Florida is still a great defense, but it may be a little fib at this point to keep calling ours an elite defense. Especially after watching our defensive backs play so poorly at times Saturday. While coverage was often great, our defensive backs too often mugged receivers when they never had to rather than make plays on the ball. Perhaps they were too keyed up or over-estimated the abilities of the receivers, or perhaps it was the fact that they were frustrated from the non-stop offensive pass interference that was ignored all day, but it is a bad sign when you blanket receivers most of the day but make very few plays that do not result in yellow flags.
3) Florida is not going to get Matt Jones back healthy this year. The Gators are now halfway through their regular season and it is clear that Matt Jones is still not even 70% healthy, if even that. He has a knee injury to contend with, but even if that turns out to be nothing, it is clear that he is not going to be the same back he was last year and in Spring until it is too late in the year to matter. This is a big blow, since a healthy Matt Jones is the only complete back on the roster. Brown has neither the size nor speed to be more than an effective plodder against SEC competition, and Kelvin Taylor can only do one thing: run. Both bring good things to the offense, but for an offense that needs every possible element it can get from every position, partial players at a critical position is a significant handicap.
4) Tyler Murphy is not super-human. The good news is that our worst fears were not realized: the fears that he would suddenly be stymied and shut down when he faced a great defense or a defense with great, well-coached athletes. That did not happen Saturday. He kept both his poise and his precision when he could, and proved that he can get the job done on the biggest stage and against the best athletes on defense there are in the country. The truth that had to be shown, however is that he is not Superman. He cannot carry the offense all on his own. He can’t block defensive linemen, run the ball, throw it and catch it all by himself. Neither could Jeff Driskel. Neither could Jacoby Birissett. Neither can any quarterback. We saw a terrible offensive line performance force Tyler to run for his life, throw two or three easy interceptions that were thankfully dropped and take four hard sacks while being hurried, pressured and pounded all day. I don’t care who you are – Peyton Manning wouldn’t be successful under those circumstances (not that he in his charmed life has ever had to try). Those who were so down on Driskel, and the others who were so down on Brissett (and then switched to Driskel when Brissett transferred), I sincerely hope will not start to get down on Murphy because as Muschamp said at halftime, Tyler played “just fine” which means he played well – but he needs someone – anyone – around him to play well in order to succeed. That didn’t happen Saturday. In any game in the future in which it does not happen, we can expect the same results from the quarterback position, no matter who it is taking the snaps.
Why Is This Taking So Long?
That has been the refrain from many Gator fans this year. And last year, for that matter. Why is it taking so long to return to SEC and national elite? Why is it taking so long to develop an explosive offense? Why is it taking so long to be the premier program in the nation again? It’s been three years already; what gives?
Well, firstly, it has not been three years. It has been 1.5 years. That’s how long Muschamp has had a bought-in program. And even last year, there were still some players that self-selected out before the team was one united unit. Muschamp’s first year was nothing but janitorial duty. You seldom if ever see or hear of a program that is in such bad shape that it is openly and repeatedly called a “broken program” by the very coach that broke it. But that’s what Urban Meyer did when he left Florida – degraded himself and his UF tenure by admitting that the program was broken and that it would take years to rebuild. Jeremy Foley knew it and believed it. Will Muschamp believed it and experienced it. About the only ones who did not believe it were Gator fans.
But fans must remember. They must cast their minds back to 2010 and 2011. Those years, the involuntary mantra in Gator Nation was, “How did we fall so far so fast?” It was a shocking fall in its speed and magnitude. Little by little the reasons became apparent. What was not apparent was how long it would take to fix what was broken. As usual, the fan expectations were far out of step with reality. But then it is hard to blame us. After all, we’d seen it happen so quickly before. Spurrier took a broken program and won the SEC title (hardware and official recognition withheld) in one year. Urban Meyer took over a broken program and won an SEC and national title in two.
But all breaks are not created equal. Urban took over a spiral fracture, Spurrier a hairline fracture. Muschamp took over a green stick break where the severed bone was sticking six inches out of the skin. Both Spurrier and Meyer took over programs full of depth (even if uneven, they still had depth), talent that was suffering through bad coaching runs and starving for leadership and direction to fall in behind and go to the next level. Muschamp took over a program where the lunatics were running the asylum and wanted no part of someone telling them to do anything differently. Thus, a third of the roster – including a ton of very talented players who were supposed to be the anchors of the team this year (especially on offense) – exited the program over the course of a year and change in the transition of coaching regimes. The player turnover and recruiting burp encountered by Spurrier and Meyer amounted to a year of mild NCAA probation sanctions. The roster churn and recruiting crater Muschamp has had to work through has been equivalent to three years of severe scholarship restrictions.
It takes a lot longer to climb back to the top than it takes to fall down from it and we are seeing that now. Florida won eleven games last year through great coaching and great effort from the players, but they were two years early. The year we can start to expect championship contention is 2014. It always was. The surge in 2012 gave false hopes for this season, but in truth the 2013 Gators did have a chance to compete for championships. That was before being devastated by injuries or illnesses or suspensions to the starting quarterback, running back, offensive tackle, right guard, tight end, defensive tackle, inside linebacker, cornerback and kick returner/wide receiver, and a linebacker and safety expected to contribute to the rotation all year. Whereas in 2012, the staff could shoot for the moon and nearly make it, injuries have relegated their highest 2013 aspirations to simply holding the season together. At the end of the day, both last year and this year Gator fans could only hope. It almost worked out last year; this year it is trending strongly away from that. Next year the staff is on the clock.
Why So Stubborn?
Another aspect of the 2013 season that reared its head Saturday against LSU was the fact that Muschamp is clearly unwilling to deviate from his philosophy of ball control offense and dominating the line of scrimmage, when Florida so clearly does not have the personnel to excel at it. In short, why does Muschamp keep doing things on offense that don’t – even won’t work?
One way to look at it is that they also do not have the personnel to facilitate excelling at other strategies, but that would be just playing on coincidence. The reason Muschamp sticks to his guns even when he knows the chambers are empty is that he knows that it is going to work. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but when it does, he does not want to have wasted his time teaching his players and practicing and playing in another system and then have to teach them his long-term system once he has the perfect instrumentation to run it. When the depth is built and the talent is improved at all positions, he wants it all to have already been in place and developed every day possible.
Look no further than last year to see the model. The microcosm. Through the first four games of the season, the coaching staff and Muschamp in particular took a lot of heat from fans questioning why he was so hell-bent on forcing the power run game when the team was so ill-suited for it. They were just plodding through games in fits and starts and sputters. Fans were miffed. Sound familiar? Just about the time Gator fans had had it up to their ears with the stubbornness, along came the LSU game. And the power running game ruled the day, dominated the mighty Tigers and gave Muschamp his first signature win as a head coach. All of us impatient fans were pretty darn glad that Muschamp was patient. He knew what was coming. Even after all the injuries in the Vanderbilt game changed the direction of the 2012 season, and the turnover fest in Jacksonville turned it again, the patience paid off once again with another huge signature win in Tallahassee.
Though the Gators are not there today, Muschamp coaches today like he will coach when they get there. It may take longer that Gator fans wish, because the offensive line is in really bad shape and playing terribly right now. But at least one group of coaches knows they will get there. They’re going to coach like they are already there. Because that is the shortest line between two points.
Unfortunately, those two points are a lot further apart right now than anyone would like. So says the deep, dark truthful mirror.