Florida is the most penalized team in the SEC. What else is new? The Gators were the most penalized team in the league in 2011 and 2012 as well. Averaging more than seven penalties a game for 62 yards is one of the chief reasons that a team who’s margin of error is so small is sitting at 4-4 and on the outside looking in at the SEC race.
Following the loss to Georgia, Will Muschamp took a stab at the officiating — in a subtle way — saying that being heavily penalized wasn’t anything new for the University of Florida.
“In the last 24 years at the University of Florida we’ve led the SEC in penalties 20 out of the 24 [years], either first or second,” Muschamp said. “It was long before I got here, so it’s interesting but it is what it is.”
And it’s true; penalties were an issue long before Muschamp came to Gainesville. They were an issue last season as well but when you’re winning football games it’s easy to gloss over the fact that Florida averaged more than eight penalties a game on its way to a one-loss regular season and BCS bowl. Going back even further, Florida overcome being the SEC’s second most penalized team (7.3 per game) on the way to a second national championship in three seasons in 2008.
When you’re struggling, as the team is currently, people begin to look for reasons why. The Gators high penalty total has created a perception among fans that the team is undisciplined and many point a finger directly at Florida’s head coach.
Do the players watch their head coach hurling expletives at officials on the sideline and does that attitude trickle down to the team and cause the team to play undisciplined?
“No, I’m not going to say it’s on Muschamp because he’s out there coaching; you know, he wants the best for his players while we’re out there playing,” linebacker Mike Taylor said. “I mean, he may lose his cool but that don’t mean we all lose ours. We all have to have a certain level of composure and understanding of what we’re out there to do and know that our coaches are on the sideline battling for us.”
Neither the players nor the coaches make any excuses for the penalties; pointing instead towards the brand of football that Florida plays: aggressive.
It’s a give and take style for Florida. The coaching staff teaches the defense to play with a mean streak and the aggressive style of play helped Florida earn 30 takeaways last season and 15 more this year. It’s aggressive penalties (pass interference, defensive holding in the secondary, personal fouls) that make up the bulk of Florida’s penalized plays this season. If you want to have the kind of defense Muschamp is building, penalties are going to come; it’s the nature of the way games are being called in this era of football.
It doesn’t, however, mean that the team is undisciplined.
“I mean, like, a facemask or something like that,” Taylor said. “It’s just in the heat of the moment and you’re going to make a tackle, no telling where you can grab.”
It’s the undisciplined penalties — the unsportsmanlike conduct and false start penalties — that cripple drives and deflate teams that Florida wants to and needs to cut out.
“Dumb penalties. We’ve got to eliminate those ones,” Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “The aggressive ones we’re always going to have. We’re going to play an aggressive style here at all times. That’s going to happen in the game. The ones that are avoidable, that are senseless, we need to continue to alleviate and get rid of.”
With the season and bowl eligibility about to expire, Florida will need to cut out penalties altogether this week when the host Vanderbilt at noon in The Swamp. The Gators were able to overcome 10 penalties for 80 yards last season against Vanderbilt but they the can’t afford to do that this year.
Aggressive or senseless, Florida won’t be bowl eligible for the first time in 23 years if it doesn’t eliminate the penalties this week.