Well it was almost exactly what I expected, and for that I was thankful. I found it to be a very satisfying opener. Of course, your mileage may vary. When the multiple injuries were compounded by multiple suspensions, there was potential that this game was going to be a little closer than the happy comfort level we were all looking for. But it never materialized because the core personality of this year’s team appears to be very much like that of last year’s team. And that’s a very good thing.
The New Normal
If you are like most Gator fans, you used to look forward to the early season opponents from mid-major conferences. It sure was fun to watch the Gators light up the scoreboard like The Who’s Tommy playing the silver ball. But if you have been waiting for the Florida offense to ramp up enough under the Muschamp regime to start putting up galactic numbers in the openers, stop waiting. It’s not going to happen. Saturday’s opener is what Muschamp wants. Period. He wants to use the most basic offense and defense possible to subdue the opponent without showing anything to the first SEC opponent, or in years like this one, the first BCS-AQ team from out of conference. That’s what he wants. That’s what he got. That’s what it will continue to be.
With the limited field view of the television feed, I could see it. My source in The Swamp (let’s call him Game Day DNA), who got to survey the entire field, saw it in spades. Florida was holding back a ton of its playbook. Time and time again, especially in the second half when Toledo adjusted to what Florida was doing, the Rockets would show a defensive look – like loading the box with the safeties in close – that demanded a change at the line to a pass, and we would just keep running the same vanilla draw play. Muschamp is not willing to even do the automatic adjustments play to play against the lesser teams like Toledo. Not even when the defensive alignment is just screaming to be exposed. The same things were evident when the Gator defense was on the field.
It was hammered home in the second half. When fans wonder what happened to all those brilliant halftime adjustments Florida used last year to change their fortunes in the second half of games, they can rest easy knowing that the absence of adjustments Saturday was intentional. If ‘Champ knows the team has the game locked down against a lesser opponent, he is not going to do a thing to garner style points. He will simply shorten the game and go home with the “W” in his pocket. It was late in the third quarter when Florida reached a sticky point. It had been lingering on a modest 14-point and then 11-point lead for way too long, and the staff knew they needed to punch in another score to get the appropriate breathing room. I wondered if they would open it up and show just a little to salt the game away. When Florida called three-straight plays to the fullbacks, that told me all I needed to know. This is the new normal for Florida football openers against lesser opponents. Not only did Florida not open things up to get the final score, Muschamp gave Miami a group of plays that they now have to account for – plays that the Gators likely have no intention of using next week.
There will be no end to the critical inferences taken from this less-than-perfect opener, but I believe much of it will be misplaced. Most of the criticisms leveled at the coaching decisions (or perceived lack thereof) are aimed at events that were in fact by design. I am reminded of a scene from the great western Silverado. When the incomparable John Cleese is leading a posse after the band of protagonists, Danny Glover starts firing a Henry rifle at them, picking off scrub brush leaves and stones and other non-lethal targets from far away. Cleese halts the posse. One of the deputies remarks, “Well, let’s go. He ain’t hittin’ nothin’,” to which Cleese replies, “He’s hit everything he’s aimed at.” Sorry, I don’t do the English accent very well. The deputy insists that they would not be out of their jurisdiction until they hit Flat-top. Then Glover shoots the hat off Cleese’s head, prompting him to say, “Today my jurisdiction ends here. Pick up my hat.” Saturday may have appeared to have many lapses in coaching decisions, but rest assured that Champ & crew hit everything they aimed at.
Most of what I wanted to see from the Gator offense, I saw. Measured improvement in many areas: Driskel’s accuracy and receiver selection; offensive line execution, especially on passing downs; players stepping up at receiver, running back and tight end; overall ability to enforce its will. I think the first drive was the most telling of the game, because that was when Florida enforced their will and even with a bare vanilla scheme and play calling, marched methodically and easily down the field and scored a touchdown. After that, the offense was simply in an inverted-Missouri mode (“Don’t Show Me”), and still was able to add 17 points and 415 yards while not really trying in a strategic sense.
The biggest offensive concern on most Gators’ minds this year was the progression of Driskel. Though the opponent was not at the top of its game, it appeared Jeff was. He hit on 77% of his passes (compared to 64% last year), with only five incompletions – three of which were dropped and one was batted at the line. He completed 17 passes to eight Gators: three receivers, two running backs, a tight end, a fullback and one of whatever Trey Burton is. He did take two sacks, but even that is an improvement as it projects to a 28% decrease in sacks over the course of the year. Of course Toledo does not sport an SEC front seven, so we will see. He did a number of small things throughout the game that were good, such as looking off the safeties and linebackers well on some plays. He did a very good job on the second series, avoiding a sack and staying in the pocket rather than taking off to the open field: he dumped it off instead, allowing the running back to take the tackle instead of taking the hit himself. That’s what an SEC quarterback has to do to ensure he will last a full season. I was not pleased with how many times the staff had him tucking the ball on scripted runs, for the very reason that we have no reliable alternative if he is lost to injury. But I am sure they were setting up tendencies for later games.
I was pleased with Mack Brown’s performance. I wish he hit the hole a lot faster and had less east and west motion in the backfield, but he followed his blocking very well and looks like he is ready to be a reliable number-2 back. I still do not know if he has SEC speed, but many backs have proven over the years that a consistent plodder can be very successful in this league (hello, Marcus Lattimore). Mark Herndon looks faster than Brown and I love how he carries the ball up under the pads like Jeff Demps. He will make some plays for the Gators this year. And of course it was difficult not to jump out of your seat when Kelvin Taylor ran the ball. When he learns his blocking assignments and masters that technique, he and Matt Jones are going to rival the best running back duo in school history. Any school’s history. But if you are expecting Champ to play him before he learns to block, don’t hold your breath. The first sack of the game happened because Mack Brown did not recognize the blitz and even when he saw it coming, didn’t make the block (heck, he evacuated the area completely, emphasizing the importance of not only knowing HOW to block, but WHEN to do so as well). The result was a virtually blind-sided quarterback sack. That is potentially a game-killer or even season-killer against an SEC team (just ask John Brantley). All those fans who keep saying that Florida should just give Taylor or Adam Lane carries with games on the line because of their running ability – and just let the blocking curve be conquered later – that very dangerous sack is exactly why college coaches don’t do that.
The offensive line play was much-improved from last year’s standard, at least for much of the day. Often, though it did not infuse me with confidence. Pass protection was much better, however it still made me cringe a number of times. There are still too many pressures and sacks being credited to “catcher’s indifference” on behalf of the offensive line. For those of you who don’t follow baseball, that is when a stolen base is not counted in the stat sheet because the catcher intentionally does not try to throw him out. D.J. Humphries and Max Garcia were both guilty Saturday of letting a pass rusher run past them as if that were their job. But overall I was encouraged at the improved blitz recognition and blocking, even against Toledo. Much improvement still needed, however.
The only major negative I saw on offense that was not intentionally dictated by the game plan was the lack of a play maker to step up and break a big play from nothing. Or even from something. Solomon Patton could have grabbed that distinction had he grabbed that easy walk-in touchdown pass, but this search for stars will have to wait another week. Another potential negative that Gator fans will no doubt have picked up on is that Driskel still did not hit many receivers in stride (and his best in-stride strike was dropped). However, this may simply be our offense. We are a move-the-chains offense by philosophy, and not a big strike unit – at least for now. Hard to hit receivers in stride when so many of the routes are come-backs or stops.
Filling the Gap
On defense, of course there were far more than just one or two men being scrutinized for improvement. The entire middle of the defense has to be replaced, and Toledo appeared to be just the team to test the new personnel, with their dual-threat quarterback, 1,500-yard rusher and 1,100-yard receiver and deep threat. Tough tasks, indeed, but the new Gator defense looks to be much like the old one. Potentially better because of the depth of players who can contribute at a high level. They held the NFL-caliber running back to just 46 yards on the ground (and the rest of the team just 4 yards), and locked down the NFL-caliber receiver to only 50 yards, and just 7 yards per catch compared to his 2012 mark of 12.5. And as for Toledo’s quarterback, they held his 62% completion rate to a mere 45% and cut his yards-per-attempt in half.
True, Terrance Owens threw a lot of errant balls and there were many drops that one might say was just blind luck for Florida but truth is that regardless of the low sack and official hurries numbers, the Gator front harassed Owens and the Toledo receivers all day, keeping them out of rhythm and out of synch the whole game. That is why the usually fluid and dangerous Toledo offense had so many so-called “mistakes.” This is where I saw Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler really shine Saturday. They didn’t log many tackles but both had a huge amount of “invisible production” – executing phases of their jobs that wreak havoc on an offense even when not directly involved in a tackle or interception. Watching them Saturday kept bringing the same thought to mind: just wait until we play some teams like Miami and SEC opponents that will call pass plays that will take more time for patterns to develop, and will try to throw to the whole field and not just the safe perimeters like out-manned Toledo did. And wait until they are actually running anything but vanilla defensive schemes. They are going to be scary this season.
Another player that really stood out to me (and to DNA) was Neiron Ball. He was very active and made a lot of nice plays. He had very good recognition in the run game and shot the right gap impressively fast. Faster than I thought he was before this year. When he fills out his #11 jersey a little more, he is going to be quite a force.
The secondary was not lights-out by any stretch, but as the Toledo passing game got more aggressive and creative, Florida did not adjust or do anything complicated all day. And that was by design, so they were bound to surrender a few yards to a prolific passing team like the Rockets. Cody Riggs certainly showed everyone why the coaches like him so much starting at safety. It is a great luxury to have his cover skills at that position. Jaylen Watkins also played very well in all phases of his cornerback job, which should surprise no one. Brian Poole flashed some great athleticism and technique when he had the opportunities and of course, Vernon Hargreaves made a highlight reel interception to cap a stellar day in coverage in his first college game. He is already special and is going to be in the Florida Hall of Fame if he stays healthy. Keanu Neal put some big pops to the pads on special teams and showed us what all this talk is about concerning his freight train hitting ability. His hits have that aftershock effect that drives the ball carrier well after the initial contact in made. We still must see them against BCS-level offenses, but I think this secondary may become or already be, the best in the nation.
While the talent of the secondary was expected to be tremendous, that of the defensive line was not so much. But if Saturday was any indication of the season to come, this is going to be another fearsome Florida front. I said before the season that we did not have to replace the skill of departed Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter, just their production – and this group can do that. I feel even better about that statement now. I said a few times last year that Leon Orr was going to come into his own this year, and it looks like he’s on his way. Seems that his has been a focus issue and it appears he is “getting it” now as far as preparing and practicing the right way throughout the year & off-season. And it really translated on the field Saturday. Dominique Easley…well you saw him continue playing the way he finished out 2012. Health permitting, I have a hard time seeing him left off the first-team All-SEC list and he should be an All-American -type player. Don’t worry that this line didn’t have a lot of sacks Saturday: Toledo ran nothing but quick-release plays and Florida did nothing but rush four straight ahead all day.
Gators’ Eye View
Overall, this team looks like it is coming together exactly as it needs to in order to see the progress we (and certainly the coaches) want to see. And it is what we need to compete for a trip to Atlanta this year, rather than waiting for next season. Even within the narrow confines of vanilla façade to keep Miami in the dark, the staff I thought showed some creative tweaks. The pitch to Valdez showers coming off the fake draw to start the second quarter was a nifty twist. We set tendencies and broke them. Very simple, very effective. It also gave Miami something to think about with respect to our patterns of tendencies. Mid-way through the second quarter, rolling the pocket to counter the pressure was another good nudge of the playbook without deviating outside the vanilla vein of neapolitan. Going to the fullbacks on three consecutive plays to score when nothing from the basic toolbox was working was a nice use of personnel and surprise. And again, it sprinkles Miami’s game prep with more work.
The only big concern I have coming out of this game is the penalties and the lack of turnovers on defense. Until some play makers are found on offense, this will continue to be a team with zero margin for error. Every mistake, every penalty will kill every drive, every time. We have no play for third-and-twelve right now. We have no way of recovering from even first-and-twenty or second-and-fifteen. Still, if Patton does not pull a Peter Pan and drop a walk-in touchdown bomb and if Quinton Dunbar does not hold on a touchdown run, then Florida wins by at least 32 points. We also ended the game inside the Toledo 5-yard line trying not to score, which had we made the effort, could have then won by almost 40 points. And the Gators did this without the services of five key starters and a key backup, of which three starters and the backup will all return for the Miami game and all but one starter will be back for Tennessee.
Another possible concern in the absence of big-play capabilities is the nature of an offense engineered to make time-consuming, sustained possessions. Long, methodical drives can be troublesome if they don’t end in scores. Just ask Mississippi State Saturday. In a defensive league like the SEC, they more often than not will end in three or fewer points. However, it is the preferred methodology of most SEC coaches – even Spurrier (these days, at least). It is exactly how Florida beat LSU last year, and Texas A&M, and FSU and a few others. It puts a lot of pressure on the defense, but I think that is the way Muschamp likes it. Also, it can be nearly unbeatable if the offense can simply execute and find a few play makers to mix some quick “cheap” scores into each game (paging Matt Jones, Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood!).
One of the things that really pleased me Saturday was the quality of the video feed of the SEC Network. All the SEC-contracted networks in the past have had simply awful video quality and really put a damper on Gator game day viewing (I’m looking at you, Jefferson Pilot).
For those unhappy that Florida did not enjoy a blowout win like decades past have provided us, look no further than the national scoreboard this weekend to count our blessings. Despite the modest final score, Florida dominated the game from start to finish and was at no point ever made to sweat the outcome for a nanosecond. In other parts of the country, three BCS-AQ (Automatic Qualifier) teams were beaten by FCS programs, including #25 Oregon State and Kansas State, which was one late-season loss away from playing in the national title game last year. In addition, two more FBS teams that were BCS-AQ programs last year lost to FCS teams, and three more BCS-AQ teams lost to non-BCS-AQ teams. West Virginia had to come back late to beat FCS bottom feeder William & Mary and 2012 Big 10 division champ Nebraska nipped MWC’s Wyoming by just three.
And for those watching the top of the polls and the two coaches – Urban Meyer and Nick Saban – that Gator fans most love to hate, Saturday did not look that bad for the Gators. Many Gator faithful were complaining when Florida was only leading Toledo by 18 points with 13:15 left in the game, but at the very same time, #2-ranked Ohio State only led Buffalo by 17 with even less time left in their game (12:18). Only they had given up 20 points to a terrible Buffalo team while Florida had held a very potent Toledo offense to just 6. Both Florida and Ohio State scored on their concurrent possessions, but Florida’s score was taken off the board on a penalty. Meanwhile, Alabama shredded Virginia Tech 35-10, but two of their scores were on special teams and a third touchdown was a pick-six on defense, so if you pull those out, it was just a 4-point victory. The Alabama offense scored all of 14 points over the sixth/seventh-place team in the awful ACC last year. The Tide only got 11 first downs and 206 total yards. This against a team that surrendered 333 yards per game in the ACC in 2012.
Then there was the South Carolina game. They beat North Carolina by 17 at home. Florida beat Toledo by 18 at home. Is North Carolina really better than Toledo? I don’t know that they are.
Right on Schedule
Each week I will attempt to capture a slice of the message board zeitgeist and respond to it in this column. This week – and pretty much every week of every year – the issue of complaining about Florida’s supposed boring or weak schedule is part of the bolus of chatter. The point was raised a few times this week, specifically pertaining to the advantage that teams like Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Alabama get from playing a BCS-AQ teams like Clemson, UNC, TCU and Virginia Tech, while Florida plays a lesser mid-major like Toledo, as far as what they are able to learn about their teams.
Well, that point is sometimes valid, but not always true. When you play a top team in your opener, you are often robbed of many opportunities to evaluate personnel groups, situational play calling, etc., because you don’t have the luxury to experiment or do anything that may leave you vulnerable. It’s one of the reasons the NFL has the pre-season and most teams don’t care anything about winning in the preseason. But also, what you learn when you play a top team right out of the gate is not always beneficial. For instance, what Georgia learned Saturday was that it is starting the season 0-and-1 and is probably out of the national title race after just one game.
Since Alabama is the benchmark of most Gator self-flagellation, the Virginia Tech matchup in the Kickoff Classic was mentioned frequently. However the complaint is nothing but a timing issue. Just compare playing Miami at Miami to playing Virginia Tech at what is far from a neutral site in the Georgia Dome. Now…which team do you think got the toughest assignment there, Alabama or Florida?
Now take UF’s other out-of-conference opponents FSU (#11, top ten team last year and likely this year), Toledo (9-win team last year which beat a BCS-AQ team) and FCS dynasty Georgia Southern (which owns a record 6 I-AA/FCS national titles) and compare them to Alabama’s other three out-of-conference foes: Colorado State (4-8 last year in the MWC), Georgia State (which program is only 4 years old and is coming off a 1-10 season in the FCS) and FCS doormat Chattanooga, which has been playing football since 1909 and has never won a championship of any kind. Now tell me which team is providing its fans with the best games to watch, and is providing its team with the best competition against which to test and measure its charges? Then consider – as I demonstrated in last week’s column – that Florida has the second-toughest schedule of all the top SEC teams, and Alabama has the easiest. I frankly cannot even remember the last time there was a legitimate reason to complain about Florida’s schedule.
I was planning to preview the Miami game here, but I expect by now some of your eyes need a rest from reading. I will comment that I thought Miami looked not only very beatable in their game against FAU, but rather weak in many areas that Florida can expose. They were not trying to hold anything back from the eyes of Florida coaches. They were throwing deep and airing out the playbook. And still they struggled all night to do anything right. Florida Atlantic has perhaps the worst assembly of so-called athletes I have seen play in the FBS in a long time (although in fairness, I did not watch the USF loss to McNeese State this weekend). I believe Toledo would beat FAU today by three or four touchdowns at least. Miami should have been able to name the score. It could not. So – spoiler alert – I feel pretty good about Florida’s next game. And I look forward to mixing a little hard analysis on this matchup into the Picks & Pans column this week. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present. Pick up my hat.