The Walking Wounded, otherwise known as the University of Florida Gators, march on to Columbia Saturday night to take on the Ole’ Ball Coach and his #10 South Carolina Gamecocks (7 PM, ESPN). Back in April, Gator fans were pointing to this game as a key deciding factor as to which team might represent the East in Atlanta. Technically, it IS still a key factor, but only for the folks we’ll be visiting and the Missouri Tigers watching from television.
Of course, this game does matter to Florida as well. The Gators will be scratching and clawing to pull off two wins in their last three games. Assuming UF finds a way to beat Georgia Southern, they’ll have to pull off a shocking upset of one of the two top 10 opponents left on its schedule, and the Gators will be considerable underdogs in each affair. Speaking of underdogs, Florida is only getting 14 points from Vegas this weekend. I’m very surprised the spread is not larger.
Despite the apparent one-sided nature of the matchup, there should still be some intriguing elements to watch for Saturday at Williams-Brice. Here’s a few of them.
1. THE BEGINNING OF THE SKYLER MORNHINWEG ERA?: This will be the redshirt freshman’s first game action since signing with Florida in 2012. Mornhinweg was recruited as a dual-threat quarterback and was given a three-star rating by most services. If his last name sounds or looks familiar, it should – he is the son of former NFL head coach Marty Mornhinweg. That’s about all we know about him. We do know he’s facing one of the most difficult sets of circumstances any freshman could face in his first career start – in a hostile environment against a top 10 team, a fan base hungry for blood, the pressure of ending a four-game losing streak, an offensive line that is struggling and the task of trying to move an offense that hasn’t been good this year even before the injury plague struck. Anything else we can toss on the shoulders of this poor kid? How about the fun and exciting prospect of having Jadaveon Clowney steamrolling towards you on every play? Very interested to see how he responds. It was always my dream growing up to play quarterback at The University of Florida, but I don’t think even I would switch places with him tomorrow night.
2. WITHER BRENT PEASE: No Gator coach is more embattled at present than Pease. To say he is on the hot seat is like saying blizzards are cold. Regardless of the multiple mitigating circumstances listed above, most Gator fans ARE going to want to see some productive offense tomorrow. Putting up 0-10 points is not going to do it. Therefore, do we see a man coaching for his job open things up a bit even though conventional wisdom strongly suggests otherwise? Especially considering he’s never really opened it up since he’s been here? Or does he protect his new QB with short and intermediate passes and a heavy dependence on the run (also known as every game plan he’s ever devised here)?
3. WOULD WE GET WILD WITH THE WILDCAT?: Like it or not, Gator Faithful, circumstances demand that we see at least some of the wildcat tomorrow – likely more than normal. And prepare yourselves for this – if Skyler goes all Nathan Peterman in the first couple of drives, it’s likely going to become the base offense. Obviously we all hope that doesn’t happen. But will we see any new wrinkles tomorrow? Might we see an actual (gasp) PASS from Trey Burton? With South Carolina undoubtedly set to stack the box with 8-9 each snap against the ‘cat, can we expect even one sustained drive? Let’s all remember Trey Burton WAS recruited as a quarterback. We’ve also seen that passing is … well, not his specialty. But even he should be able to complete a few passes here and there against a stacked box.
4. AND THE DEFENSE?: This unit as been even more battered and bruised than its offensive counterpart. And the drop in its level of play has been much more severe, as this was an elite unit in the first few games of the season. During this four-game losing streak, the only game in which the defense played respectably was LSU, and it was the first game of the streak – unsurprisingly. Georgia, Missouri and (gulp) Vanderbilt gashed these poor guys. It gets no easier tomorrow with the likes of Connor Shaw and Mike Davis, not to mention the coach on the opposing sideline, who has proven himself pretty adept over the years at calling some good ball plays. I know it’s the knee-jerk reaction of every armchair quarterback to call “blitz! blitz! blitz!” every play but, realistically, I think a heavy dose of pressure is all that can slow these Cocks down tomorrow night – especially from the corners and safeties. If we just sit back, Shaw is going to pick us apart and Davis will run all over the place.
5. AND FINALLY, THE OLD BALL COACH: Almost every Gator fan alive still loves and adores the man but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to whoop him every time we see him. And we know the same is true for him. But here’s the question – IF this game gets out of hand early tomorrow, does Steve have it in him to run up the score against The Mighty Gators? If we’re down 3-4 touchdowns in the early part of the third, does he take his foot off the gas or turn into Leadfoot Lucy and keep the scoreboard smoking? I’d like to think, given the circumstances, he’d opt for the former, especially considering he doesn’t need any style points now, just W’s. But I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he opts for the latter – SHOULD those circumstances present themselves.
As to how I see tomorrow playing itself out, well, I’d like to go out on a limb and predict the impossible. I’d like to say we’re going to see the second coming of Johnny Football making his first start for Florida. I’d like to think our offensive line can keep Clowney and Co. at bay and open up some nice running lanes. I’d like to think our exhausted and crippled defense can hold the Cocks to 21 or less. I’d like to think we can score more than 21. I’d like to think Nicole Scherzinger will show up at my place tomorrow for the game (no, my wife does not read these articles). But the sad facts are, it’s highly likely that none of those things happen, especially since Nicole never responds to my Facebook posts. We’re probably going to take it on the chin tomorrow: my guess would be around 35-10. Of course, had you told me a few months ago that this team would be 4-6 after the South Carolina game I never would have believed you either. So if someone tells you he or she is confident we are going to win tomorrow, don’t discount this person out of hand. You may have found yourself a soothsayer. Beware the ides of November.