Florida travels to Nashville looking to tighten its grip on the SEC East race. The Gators could end up being East Champs by the plane ride home but they must first take care of the pesky Commodores. Behind Jay Cutler, Vandy took UF to overtime last season before losing 49-42. This season the Commodores are in the hunt for a bowl game if they can spring the upset on the Gators.
UF has won 15 in a row in a series that has had its share of close calls. Most Gator fans remember 1996, the season in which the best team in Gator history escaped Nashville with a seven point win. This game has all the makings of a close call like that one unless the Gators clean up several areas of their offense.
FLORIDA STATISTIC: The Gators have committed four turnovers in the red zone this season. Combine that with three missed field goals and that could mean an extra 37 points this year.
The Gator offense has been the buzz all week and everyone, including myself, has drawn up some plays on a cocktail napkin and dropped them off at the UF football office. How can an offense that moved the ball at will in the first half against Georgia and Auburn, look so bad in the second half? The answer is self-inflicted wounds. The Gators have committed unforced errors the last two games and they are not limited to just the players on the field. The Gators need to clean up their protections, play calling, substitution patterns and most of all focus in the second half of games. Here are my suggestions take this for whatever it’s worth:
— UF has been working in the shotgun and with the silent count a lot the last month. Think about getting under center some and going with a traditional cadence.
— With Florida running so many formations and moving guys around from time to time the offensive line may be getting crossed up trying to determine their blocking schemes.
— The coaches need to get the players into the game quicker. Twice last week UF got flagged for too many men breaking the huddle. That is on the coaches.
— Let Tim Tebow play a series and finish it. When he came in last week UF had two false starts and it seems the change in quarterbacks within a series has caused some false starts.
— Finally, the Gators have had such easy success in the first half the last two games that maybe the focus has waned in the second half. This again is coaching and it is important to emphasize at half time that there is still two quarters of football left. One way to get the focus of the unit is to create a new “script” to begin the first half so that it takes the thinking out of the mix. The players know which 10-12 plays they are going to run and work on them all week. This is no different than the start of the game and by repetitions during the week it will create a comfort level among the players.
STATISTIC: Vandy runs the ball at 4.75 yards per clip and has 59 runs of 10-plus yards on the season including 15 over 20 yards.
Vanderbilt comes into the game fresh off a huge rushing performance against Duke last week. Sophomore quarterback Chris Nickson had 150 yards on the ground as well as 250 in the air to give UF coaches something to work on this week in practice. It has been baptism by fire for the young quarterback who replaced a Commodore legend in Jay Cutler. The Commodores have run the ball more than they have thrown it this season and they are in a virtual tie with UF for fourth in the SEC at 157 yards per game on the ground. They like to run the ball close to 50-50 on first down, but keep an eye on second down where they clearly like to run the football no matter the down and distance. They have run the ball nearly 75 percent of the time on second down which tells me they want to protect their quarterback and also try to shorten the game by moving the clock. Cassen Jackson-Garrison is a solid running back who has good size. In the passing game Earl Bennett returns as the SEC’s leading receiver with an average of six passes per game. Vandy likes to run a lot of zone coverage routes which can look like hitches, curls and digs. They really like to attack the 5-15 yard area of your pass coverage.
STATISTIC: Eight defenses in the SEC are under 300 yards and all are ranked in the top 37 defenses in the country.
Vandy’s defense is ranked ninth in the SEC but they yield a respectable 319 yards a game which is 56th in the country. Jonathan Goff leads the team in tackles from the middle linebacker spot. Vanderbilt is tenth in the league in rushing defense and haS given up 10 rushing touchdowns on the season. The defensive line has improved, accounting for 10.5 of the team’s 15 sacks on the season. Vandy had 14 sacks the entire year in 2005. Defensive End Curtis Gatewood is a very active end that gets after the quarterback pretty well. He has six tackles for loss and five sacks on the season. He is listed as questionable for the game. The Vanderbilt secondary is second in the SEC in pass defense and they have 11 interceptions on the season. Reshard Langford is the leader of the back four with three interceptions and seven pass break ups. The Commodores can be run on and that should be the focus this week for the Gators. The only team in the conference to score over 22 points on Vandy is Steve Spurrier and South Carolina (31 points).
STATISTIC: Vandy has lost three conference games by 12 points.
Florida needs to feature the running game this week with DeShawn Wynn. His size and power should get 100 yards if he can get 15-20 carries. The Gators will then use their speedy wideouts Harvin and Caldwell to complement that with a couple of touches each in the run game. The play action pass is going to be important for the Gators this week. I believe UF ‘s game plan will look very similar to the one at Tennessee with the only exception being a healthy Percy Harvin. The Gator offensive line which overall has played very well this season should be in a match-up that they can excel this week against Vanderbilt. Florida has just 271 yards passing combined in the last two games and really needs to improve that against an overmatched secondary at Vandy. I am putting an APB out for Jemalle Cornelius who had three receptions over 20 yards against Alabama earlier in the season. If Florida wants more reps for Tim Tebow expect them to give him a series and let him run the offense which includes the passing game.
FLORIDA STATISTIC: Florida has held Georgia and Tennessee to less than 60 plays in a game. The key reason is three and outs caused by the Gator defense.
The Gator defense had a sterling performance a week ago forcing Georgia off the field repeatedly with three and outs. In the first eight possessions last week the Dogs crossed midfield just once. Earl Everett may be playing the best of any linebacker on Florida’s roster right now. He is blitzing, covering and defending the run at a high level. Florida’s defensive ends will be key this week in forcing Nickson to stay in the pocket and scramble up the middle where Brandon Siler and Marcus Thomas reside. I expect UF to continue to mix its coverages up between zone and man. Last week the Gators tightened up the coverage but the Dogs’ quarterback could not scramble. I think Ryan Smith and Reggie Lewis will play a bit more zone this week because of the ability Nickson has to take off and run. If you get caught in man coverage with your back to a running quarterback it could me a big play for the offense. Florida will look to once again make Vandy one-dimensional and force the Commodores to throw the ball quick in the passing game. Last year Cutler dissected the Gators with the quick game and I am sure it is on Vandy’s plan once again. The key for Florida is intensity and focus. They cannot come out flat and go through the motions. Keep an eye on UF’s defense after a turnover or in the red zone this week if those opportunities present themselves. This was a point of emphasis all week long after Georgia converted two turnovers into 14 points.
GATOR STATISTIC: Urban Meyer’s only loss in November the last three years came last season at South Carolina (30-22).
How will it play out? Florida must eliminate self-inflicted wounds to take care of Vandy and the rest of this schedule. Cut down penalties, turnovers, drops and missed assignments. I think when you look at the game the Gators will get 24 points on offense and it’s hard to predict Vandy going down the field on the defense more than one time during a game. If UF does not turn the ball over and give the Commordores a short field they should be okay. Special teams is still an area that the Gators must watch with regards to returns and coverage. I suspect Chris Hetland will keep his job for another week but UF needs to cover kicks better and be more consistent on kickoff return. I think the Gators will give up two touchdowns — one on a drive and one on a short field. I also thinks the defense will score one again this week. Gators win 31-14.
KEY PLAYERS FOR FLORIDA: Dallas Baker, DeShawn Wynn, Steve Rissler, Chris Leak , the Defense.
Check out Sun Sports College Kickoff at a special time Friday night 5:30 p.m. It will also re-air so check http://www.sunsportstv.com We will have Gator Post Game immediately following the broadcast in Nashville so join me along with Whit Watson, Terry Norvelle, David Steele, Nat Moore, Steve Babik and Todd Lewis for all the reaction from the Gators.