I wanted this to be about a lot of other things, but when it was learned that Jeff Driskel was lost for the year, this game became the pivot point of the season. And, that’s what we have to discuss.
New Offense, Same as the Old Offense
One of the things heard around the stadium, across the message boards and probably in the living rooms of many Gator fans this weekend was the mantra that once Tyler Murphy took over at quarterback Saturday, this looked like a new offense. And, that this new look and efficiency was because of Tyler Murphy playing QB instead of Jeff Driskel. I have a few reactions to that. All of them relate to the fact that “looked like a new offense” was an assessment being based on only one thing: points being scored and lack of turnovers.
1) First, of the 17 points that were scored in the first half after Murphy took over, ten were made possible only because the defense gave Florida the ball via turnovers, once on the UT 6 (Florida could not move the ball 6 yards, settled for a field goal), and once on the UT 40. The third score was a 52-yard run on a wide receiver screen that was also set up by a turnover – but that one was on the Florida side of the 50.
2) The “new offense” look attributed to lack of turnovers did not start when Murphy took over, but rather it began after the entire team was thoroughly reamed out in the locker room at halftime. Because Murphy himself was directly involved in two fumbles in the first half – one was the fault of center Jonotthan Harrison bouncing the ball off of Tyler’s facemask before he called for the snap, the other a combined effort between quarterback and running back on a botched handoff. So ball security did not change as soon as Murphy entered the game.
The major point here is that this was not a new offense in most senses of the term. Conceptually it was the same offense that we saw when Driskel was playing earlier in the game. It was the same offense we saw against Miami and Toledo. It was not much of a different offense than we saw all last year. It simply lacked the turnovers in the second half that it experienced in the first half and against Miami. It was a different offense in one respect, but not in the respect that people meant: it was different in that the play calling changed. There were a lot more designed runs by the quarterback and the passing game was significantly simplified. But more on that later.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Some of what I am about to say will make many “Squint like Clint” – sometimes from smiling, sometimes from wincing. But as is always the case when rebuilding a program, especially when hindered by an onslaught of significant injuries, there is good with bad, and some ugly, too.
The Ugly: It should be no surprise that the ugly outcome of the turn of events at the quarterback position is not only the loss of the starter for the season, but significantly disturbing how he is being regarded and talked about as he is moved to the disabled list. It is truly unfortunate that Driskel threw an interception on his last pass because it has provided a hunting license and open season for his critics to empty their clips. The mantra is that he played just as poorly against Tennessee as he did against Miami. That is false on two different levels. First, he did not play poorly against Miami – he made two or three huge mistakes while otherwise playing very well. Both of his interceptions were the result of his trying to do too much when he should have just eaten the ball and settled for three points. In the first game of his career where he was truly asked to make big plays with his arm, he pressed and forced two really bad throws trying to play outside of his proficiency. This is not an uncommon occurrence with players at his stage of development, but at Florida exhibiting any signs of this step in development is tantamount to insulting a fan’s family, heritage and his wife’s weight.
More importantly, this mantra is inaccurate specific to the Tennessee game because Jeff was playing very well before the interception. He was making good reads under pressure (and with regards to Florida pass plays that are under heavy pressure, to quote Jack Nicholson on the stand in A Few Good Men, “Is there any other kind?”), and he was throwing crisp passes while doing so on a freshly injured knee that would have held him out of the game had it been played last week. He threw vertically and laterally and was giving me the sense that his mistakes at Miami were out of his mind and ‘here we go.’ He was 3-for-5 before he threw the pick, but should have been 4-for-5 through no fault of his own. His excellent 10-yard sideline strike to Dunbar for a first down was negated because Dunbar stepped out of bounds for no apparent reason, and the incompletion on the other sideline to Dunbar should have been negated on a blatant pass interference that was not called despite the ref being three yards from the play and literally staring at the Vol DB’s hand tugging on Dunbar’s jersey at the shoulder.
As for the pick-6 that ended Driskel’s season, I have watched the replay several times and am still not convinced he could have done anything about it. He was in the act of throwing when the defensive player first made contact. The hit altered the throw. It was not a bad pass per se by Driskel. He might have been able to feel the hit as he was starting his delivery, and maybe if he tried to tuck it in the middle of his throw, he is sacked and his season ends without the pick-6. But maybe the sudden start-stop of the throwing motion causes the ball to flop out like a wounded duck like the “pass” that Bear Cummings intercepted for Florida later in the game. Then Jeff would still get blamed for making a bad decision (“should have just thrown it!”). But the fact is that the throw was not a bad decision. It was the correct read on the play and Burton was open. If he did feel the hit early enough to tuck the ball, I can understand his trying to throw it anyway: he is a very strong guy and truthfully due to poor line play, a significant number of completions in his UF career have had to come with defenders already in the act of tackling him. Regardless, I am not sure that he could have done anything on that play to make it a successful one. However, anyone looking to level criticism for that play should first answer the question: what level of accuracy should be reasonably expected from a quarterback who is throwing while his leg is being broken? Whatever blame Driskel shoulders for making a bad throw, that turnover was a physically-forced phenomenon (either from a poor throw or a concurrently fracturing fibula), and not an issue of decision making or poor ball security.
Hopefully this will be the last time that I will defend Driskel as a quarterback, but at the end of the day, he was showing thus far all the progress that we should expect at this point in his development, and all the progress we would need for him to reach a level capable of beating LSU in three weeks. A very obvious issue with decision making under pressure surfaced in Miami and that would have been something he would need to overcome before the trip to Red Stick, and we wouldn’t have known if it would come together until he started throwing against the Bengals, but that’s what makes sports fun: watching it all unfold. Now we won’t get that chance for another year and there is no telling how this injury may set him back or alter his development further. But we do know it has changed Florida’s 2013 season in a tectonic fashion.
The Good: Tyler Murphy stepped up to the plate and handled the quarterback job with poise, confidence and class and did more than enough to get the ninth-straight win over the hated Vols. He appeared to surprise or shock most Gator fans watching the action, but most of us who saw him in spring and fall practice were not. I had even remarked before the season started that this team can absolutely win SEC games with Tyler Murphy at quarterback. Maybe nobody believed it, but now they certainly do. This is an instant feel-good story and one that should not be under-appreciated. Going forward, there is hope and there is reason not to start pressing the business edge of the steak knife onto the wrist just yet. The staff can work with this. As I said, the offense is the same. The game plan is the same. The quarterback will continue to be asked to manage the game and manage the game only – and not lose it – and occasionally make plays with the legs or the arm (more often the legs) whole hoping that the defense and special teams keep the game within the truncated reach of the limited offense.
Basically…we are back to the 2012 Gator offense, the offense that won 11 games against the toughest schedule in the nation. The season is not toast by any stretch.
Losing Driskel creates a tremendous limitation for this team. The Gators can win with Murphy, as they did Saturday. But Florida does not play the worst defense in the SEC every week like it did Saturday. When the Gators square off against LSU, Carolina, UGA and FSU, things will be much, much different. Which brings us to…
The Bad: Taking nothing away from Tyler Murphy’s heroic and at times even breathtaking performance, looking ahead to the bigger games on the schedule, we must consider the reality of our new limitations. Firstly, we need to be more objective in assessing his performance Saturday. High off the relief of coming back from a 7-0 deficit to a 17-7 halftime lead, the perception of, “We are so much better on offense with Murphy” must be balanced with reality. In the first half, Murphy was 5-of-7, which is great, but only one of those passes was thrown more than 5 yards downfield (and that was a nine-yard completion). The 52-yard touchdown toss was a backwards-thrown wide receiver screen. Murphy did his real damage on the ground, with four runs for 35 yards, on simple read options. They worked for modest gains against the worst defense in the conference that is utterly atrocious on the perimeter where that play attacks. UT had enough trouble even figuring out how to line up from play to play, let alone scheme against the tendencies of a player they never expected to see. Those plays are not going to be there against good defenses, especially after they get a little film on Murphy.
If Murphy does not pose a threat through the air, those zone reads that he converted against Tennessee will go away against the good defenses. It will be no different than when Trey Burton comes in and the defense matches assignments and takes it away completely. And why should we be concerned that Murphy may not continue to be a threat through the air? Because of that to which I alluded earlier: the offense did change when Murphy came in. It was made much simpler. Someone on the forums said that Murphy looked smarter than Driskel making his throws. My reply was that the questions were much easier. What was apparent through the TV feed that I watched was that routes and reads were simplified. Even Danielson, who doesn’t miss much, commented a couple of times that we were going with two receiver patterns that were much simpler than when Driskel was in the game. My source in the Swamp, Game Day DNA saw the same thing in person with his full view of the field and much more educated eye. He observed that we immediately went to single reads, either two receivers trying to split the defensive back (think high/low option; these are the routes Gary Danielson remarked on) or an instant read where it is either there immediately or he doesn’t throw. A number of his completions came after these routes were not open and he bought time with his feet until someone broke open.
Again, he made many really nice throws and he did an excellent job with what he was asked to do, but the nature of the change in the scheme reflects the reason he was third string behind Driskel and Brissett. He was recruited as a pure spread option quarterback and has done a very good job adapting and learning to be a pocket passer in his time at UF. But he is not yet at the level of Driskel or Brissett in his ability to go through progressions. Driskel is not yet the fastest in the world in making his reads or going through his progressions, but he is not too far off and the cannon sewn to his right shoulder helps him make up for it.
This is what gives me the Gator fan version of night terrors. While this is light years better than platooning Jordan Reed and Trey Burton after John Brantley was knocked out of the box in 2010, or platooning two true freshmen who had received absolutely no coaching from their position coach after John Brantley was knocked out of the box in 2011, this is still a devastating blow to the Gators’ 2013 trajectory.
The Big “But:” While it may just be the optimist in me whistling past the graveyard, I do not rule out the possibility that the season could still hold together. I do not make the mistake made by the more ardent critics of Jeff Driskel, Scottie Wilbekin and many others, that players are perpetual static figures, arrested forever at one stage of development. Players have the ability to develop and improve over time – and most do. Sometimes necessity proves a better developer than coaching. And both Murphy and the coaching staff have three weeks to prepare and devise an offensive plan that works with Murphy’s skill set, the personnel around him and the level or personnel they will face against LSU. Then three more weeks to keep ramping up for Georgia (including a bye the week before). Then two more weeks before facing Carolina and two more weeks yet before Florida State comes to town. Regardless of what happens in Baton Rouge, the critical point is that there are six weeks to formulate the right plan – and bring Murphy up to speed as much as possible – before facing Georgia. Georgia and South Carolina are the keys to Atlanta, not LSU.
Wilder things have happened. And although Driskel obviously has a much higher ceiling with his size, strength and experience, and our offense’s potential was much higher this year with him taking snaps, this team still may be able to win a division title with Tyler Murphy’s skill set and level of experience. First, because of Tyler Murphy: the player and young man. His intangibles jump off the page in that he is a very smart kid, he’s a tough kid, he’s a natural leader, he’s a very hard worker and possibly the most dedicated player on the team. Contrast his tenacity – he was told by two different staffs at Florida that he should change positions or transfer if he ever wants to see the field, yet he stuck to quarterback – to that of Jacoby Brissett, who would today be in position not only to be the starter at his dream school for the rest of the year but also to use 2013 to solidify his grasp on the starter’s job the rest of his career. Brissett chose to go to awful NC State rather than stick it out like Murphy did. Second, the fundamental intent and strategy of this offense will not change. It will simply be much more limited; with significantly fewer options in the passing game; it will be as I said before: the 2012 Gator offense, but with a less physical quarterback who will rely more on timing than power to get his throws into narrow windows. But, he is a heady player with very good wheels.
Last, the Gators are still in contention for hardware because of Brent Pease. Anyone who was not impressed last year with the way he knit a silk purse out of the sow’s ear he was given with the otherworldly injuries riddling the offensive line and the glaring personnel limitations all over the field – well they had to be dazzled with the job he did Saturday against Tennessee. To completely alter the entire game plan and playbook rotation on a dime, dealing with Moore’s absence again and Halapio’s square dancing with hillbilly eye pokers throughout the day, and the fact that the only running back who is game ready does not have the speed to carry an offense against an SEC defense (even the wretched one UT put out there), and to put together the calls that rang up 20 first downs, and just shy of 40 minutes possession time and 400 yards of offense was something to watch. And with all the complaining over the lack of sexiness of the Florida offense this year, Pease has put together game totals of 415, 413 and 382 yards, topped 200 yards rushing in two games and nearly 300 yards passing in the other, more than 20 first downs in every game, third down conversion efficiency of 49% and has been less than two minutes shy of 40 minutes possession time in all three games. That may not be sexy, but it certainly is seductive.
And I would be remiss if I did not give laurels to the Florida players, especially on offense, for rebounding from such a powerful early-game blow. Losing a fellow player to a season-ending injury is brutal on teammates. This week’s Ephesians Bartley Report does a great job of capturing the mindset of players who have a teammate go down like that, and I refer you to that column for deeper and better insight (if you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and do so today). Those of us who watched the 1996 Fiasco Bowl saw it firsthand. While Nebraska had taken the upper hand convincingly enough by halftime, the Gators had led that game well into the second quarter and were by no means out of it. Then came the second half kickoff and Quezzie Green gets his leg pulled clean out of socket, gone for the game, his very career in question. You could feel the entire team deflate like an air mattress on a bed of nails. They folded their tents. This Gator team on Saturday did not. And that is a great sign, because there is nothing but dirt and nails to eat for the rest of this season.
Oh Yeah, the Game
It was such a bizarre thing to behold, I don’t know if there is any way to go about making sense of it. Trying to understand the game, certainly the first half, would be in the words of H.I. McDonough, “A rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” At the point where Bear Cummings grabbed that cascading interception and then on his way to a pick-six was tackled from behind by Dominique Easley’s thought bubble, I just started laughing uncontrollably at the whole game. Still, a few observations are in order.
* If ever there were a symbol for the importance in Coach Muschamp making the line of scrimmage his top recruiting priority for the rest of his life, it is this fact: It has now been four seasons in the last five that the Florida offensive line has allowed the quarterback to be knocked out of a game that significantly impacted the rest of the season. In three of the last four seasons, it was the only known reliable quarterback on the roster. In 2009 obviously a fortuitous bye week and a surrounding offense brimming with future NFL starters covered for Tebow’s concussion and that season resulted in an East title. Still the entire offense was altered to protect him from future concussions and significant offensive struggles ensued. But in the two following years, losing the quarterback effectively ended the Gators’ seasons. Hopefully Murphy will prove to be reliable and break that streak, but it is both amazing and ridiculous how often this has happened in such a short span of time.
* At one point in the UT game, Florida had three possessions, 10:12 out of 10:57 in time of possession, 59 yards and six first downs (though one was negated by Dunbar’s penalty), while Tennessee had all of two plays, 45 seconds of possession time, negative-6 yards offense and a fumble. Nearly 11 minutes into the game and Florida had more possessions that Tennessee had plays. Everything was going perfectly for UF except for losing two starters to injury, and, …and of course trailing 7-0. A few seconds later, UF had run 23 plays for 60 yards, those six first downs and 11:46 time of possession compared to UT’s five plays, zero first downs, 1:24 time of possession and negative-11 yards of offense. And the Gators still trailed by four. Help. I’m slipping into the twilight zone.
* Lost in the absurdity of the game was the fact that Florida only had penalties on the day (after getting 10 each in the first two games), and did so while being utterly abused by the officials. The most incredible thing about the total domination by the Florida defensive line was the fact that they were being held so often that you wanted to check under the white and creamsicle jerseys and see if they weren’t really wearing crimson. Tennessee was only flagged three times all day. Meanwhile most of Florida’s penalties were ticky-tack and away from the ball. About the only penalty that was legitimate was the one flagged against Brian Poole. It was not legitimate in a football sense, since it is how football was played for over a hundred years and it’s the way it should be played, but in the technical sense that it does violate the new rule in textbook fashion. However, the ejection and subsequent missing of the first half of the next game has to be severed. It is absurd. But even that perfectly legitimate penalty raises the question that if Poole’s hit was clearly targeting about the shoulders, then why was the hit that knocked Loucheiz Purifoy out of the game not also clearly spearing with the helmet?
* After flirting with it for two weeks, I think Solomon Patton may have finally put his stamp on the roster as THE play-maker of this offense. Of course, this offense needs more than one (much more), and they need them now. I do not know if one of them will eventually be Mack Brown, but he finally started showing in the second half that forward lean and decisive running that we have been waiting to see form him for four years. I hope he has jumped it up a notch and continues to do so. I must give props to the nice dead-leg move he put on in the fourth quarter to convert a third down. It was very subtle but changed the defender’s whole angle to spring him for the yardage needed to get to the sticks. Haven’t seen that nuance in his running and it was great to see on Saturday, especially as Matt Jones continues to work toward playing health.
Just How Good is This Defense?
How many of you remember Saturday, November 15, 2011? You would probably have to look it up to find that this was the day that Florida beat Vanderbilt 26-21. That was 676 days ago (counting back from Saturday). And that was the last time Muschamp’s Florida defense gave up more than 20 points to an SEC opponent: a streak of 10-straight. Florida won all but two of those games (losing to UGA last year and South Carolina in 2011 – both times surrendering 17 points). How about October 8, 2011? That was the day Florida lost to LSU in Baton Rouge 41-11, marking the last time the Gators surrendered more than 24 point to an SEC foe. It was 741 days ago, a 13-game span.
By comparison, the number of games since Alabama has given up 20 points or less to an SEC opponent is zero. Georgia? Zero also. South Carolina likewise is riding a zero-game streak. Same for LSU. Zip. Texas A&M, Vandy, MSU, Auburn, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky are all sitting on ZERO-straight as well. Arkansas is standing tall with a huge 1-game streak of allowing 20 or fewer points to SEC opponents, but that will go back to zero this Saturday when the Hogs are destroyed by Texas A&M.
So in the defense-crazy SEC, when it comes to holding conference opponents to 20 points or less, 12 teams have a consecutive game streak of ZERO, and 1 team has a streak of one – which is guaranteed to be reduced to zero Saturday. Florida’s streak is 10.
Read that again.
Besides that little nugget, the defense held its third-straight opponent to 220 yards or less in total offense Saturday, 12 first downs or less, and through three games they have held opponents to a third down efficiency mark of just 19%, just just over 2 conversions per game.
The only bad thing about this is that with every passing week the burden put on this defense is increased. Turnovers in week two, losing the starting quarterback (and then more turnovers) in week three. But let’s hope that it was a stepping up of Florida’s playmakers and not just UT’s ineptness that led to the Gators finally grabbing multiple turnovers Saturday. That trend has to continue for this team to have a shot at a title this year. Whether they can maintain this level of dominant play the whole year – and against the Big 4 remaining on the slate – LSU, UGA, SC and FSU – we will just have to wait and see. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.