Between the Lines – What Worked and Didn’t

The Florida Gators won again this week and despite a 7-1 record and number four ranking in the BCS poll there is much to correct with this Gator team. Despite the fact that the Gators are the highest ranked one-loss team and have played the toughest schedule in the land, they can do better. Let’s take a look at what went right and wrong and maybe add a little perspective on things.

It is just amazing to me that the Gators can be the premiere team in the state and maybe the Southeastern conference and still there seems to be this cloud hanging over the program. In this instance the cloud is nothing but expectations. However, they are expectations born from more than just preseason publicity. They are born from flashes of what fans and coaches have seen on the field, from a team that seems to live and die by the sword of a close game.

The sad part is that the more the team wins, the more the close wins seem to hurt. If the team were to lose a game or two a close win like the one Saturday would make the fans happier. This all goes back to those BCS rankings. My advice to Gators is to forget about the BCS and concentrate on the SEC. Think about winning the first SEC title in seven years and only the second in ten years.

The national stuff is fun for some, torturous for others. The fact is the national polls seem to love the SEC this year. They love the fact the Gators went through the country’s toughest schedule and only lost one game on the road against another one loss team. So, instead of only worrying about only beating UGA by seven, think about the fact that it is a win against a hated rival in a neutral stadium and that rival was ranked when you beat them.

Now, don’t you feel better? Probably not and here is why.

Gator fans see the defense. They know how special this defense is. They see the stars on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary and know that this defense will not be intact next season. They know this defense can carry the offense so far and they have already carried them far this season.

The Florida defense has given up fewer touchdowns (seven) than the games they have played (eight). Against good offenses they bend but don’t break and allow touchdowns. The only issue is the time it allows for a non-efficient offense to have enough plays to score. So far, that has only affected one game. Time will tell if that is the only game.

The Gators’ offense is like the big tease. They entice you with all these glittery stars on offense. They make these big time plays at times and then poof! They go a quarter or two in silence. For all the skill guys with a lot of experience, they lack the consistency on offense to really put teams away.

There are a few reasons for the lack of consistency and I will touch on that in my analysis of the Georgia game but Gator fans and maybe even coaches seem tired of the tease. The players are there. They have seen them make some and many plays.

The Gator offense already has 44 plays over 20 yards this season. That is seven more than they had all of the entire last season (37). On Saturday they had three against a fairly stingy defense. The problem is they all came in the first half.

Why can they not do it more often and really put a team away? Will that happen at the right time? Will the defense have a bad game and the offense be there to bail them out? These are the questions that bother Gator fans, coaches, and players.

All you can do as fans is look at the apparent improvement and hope that it gets even better and more importantly, more consistent. As coaches and players, maybe they need to make some kind of adjustments. Again I will touch on that in a bit.

As a fan, I suggest you relish in the victories and go into the last two SEC games confident that your team is the better one on the field. With a Gator win on Saturday and a Tennessee loss, the Gators will be playing in Atlanta for the first time since 2000 and that is huge for Urban Meyer’s new program.

Now let’s look back at some things in the Georgia game.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: The play calling in the first half was well conceived. At first glance the stats show only two of seven possessions resulting in scores. Upon further review, two freshmen dropped third down passes that could have resulted in first downs and continued drives. Another third down pass was dropped by Andre Caldwell that could have resulted in a first down. The point being in bringing this up in the positive part of this thread is that the players seemed to be in position to make plays at the right time in the first half. That is something some refuse to believe.

The play action pass on the second touchdown was a thing of beauty. DeShawn Wynn was in for his first play of the day and the safeties definitely keyed on him running the ball. With the two steps they took towards the line of scrimmage, Andre Caldwell got behind them and only had to bounce of cornerbacks covering to get into the end zone.

The Gators ran well on the day. Although they seemed to run wide with end arounds and the like, the average yards per carry for all runners was over four yards per carry. In crunch time, when the Gators needed the lift from a running back and the Dogs knew they were going to run it, DeShawn Wynn came in and sealed the deal.

The defense was as hard hitting as ever Saturday. The hitting set the tone for multiple drops by the Georgia receivers and tight end Martez Milner. It is easy to see that Reggie Nelson’s influence is seen in the film room and before anyone on the field has to take a hit from him. It only got worse as he bent a couple of more receivers in half in this game. Milner and company heard so many footsteps in the game that Nelson ought to be called a centipede.

The pass rush was excellent and forced the freshman quarterback from Georgia into many mistakes and four sacks. The pressure also forced the fumble for a touchdown on the first play in the second half that was the impetus for the offense to put it in cruise control for the rest of the game.

The ends were a huge factor in the game and have been a big factor all season. Jarvis Moss led all linemen with five tackles on the day and he had a sack. Derrick Harvey added the heat yet again and had a sack while leading the Gators with eight sacks on the season. Ray McDonald was there for the touchdown recovery forced by Harvey.

The cornerbacks also had a good game. Often criticized for playing off receivers, that didn’t happen nearly as much on Saturday. Only three passes of medium length were caught by wide receivers and only one pass all day was caught that went 20 yards or more. There were some drops of some slant passes and the drops could be attributed to aggressive play of the defensive backs as a whole. On the day the corners played a good game.

I can’t go without mentioning Brandon James. The poor guy doesn’t have a touchdown yet, but is plain to see that he will have many from the punt returner position before he is done with his career. He is as exciting a player as the Gators have had at the position in the 21 years I have really followed the Gators.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Okay, I will start with the play calling. I already went over the fact I thought that the play calling was not bad in the first half. When you factor in drops on third down that forced punts and ended drives, that isn’t a bad play call, it is a lack of execution. In the second half, the staff may have gone a little conservative, but they came out firing on the first two plays of the half with plays of 12 and 13 yards. After that drive failed, it seems they went a little conservative.

With a 21-point lead and the defense playing as well as it was playing, that isn’t necessarily a bad call, but hindsight says it was.

The real problem still goes back to execution. The main ingredient for the lack of execution was penalties, but that wasn’t the only thing that happened. Let’s take a look at a drive chart.

First we will assume there were three successful drives in the game. They were the touchdown drives on drive one and drive five and also the last drive of the game that ran out of the clock. That leaves 11 unsuccessful drives.

Drive 2 – (Punt) Drive stalled after a drop on third down by Harvin.

Drive 3 – (Punt) Drive stalled after incomplete pass on second down made it third and 10 and Leak scrambled for only five.

Drive 4 – (Punt) Drive stalled with a drop on third down by Fayson.

Drive 6 – (Punt) Drive stalled after a drop on third down by Caldwell.

Drive 7 – (Downs) Drive stalled after a holding call on second down made it second and 20.

Drive 8 – (Missed FG) Drive stalled after an option keeper by Leak made it third and 13, this is also where Leak got hurt.

Drive 9 – (leak INT)

Drive 10 – (Punt) Drive stalled after a false start on first down made it first and 15.

Drive 11 – (Missed FG) Drive stalled after substitution penalty made it first and 15.

Drive 12 – (Tebow Fumble)

Drive 13 – (Punt) Drive stalled after holding penalty made it second and 20.

I count three drives stalled due to drops. The only thing I would look at here is should a true freshman be in there on third down trying to worry about making a play in the ball and then getting a first down. I think the older players like Jemalle Cornelius and Dallas Baker have made more than their fair share of big plays. To be fair, Caldwell dropped one too, but he also touched the ball 13 times on the day and that is going to happen.

I count four drives stalling due to penalties within the last set of downs in that drive. The Gators only converted one third down with at least six yards to go and that has to get better, but when silly penalties put the offense in a hole like it does, it will play havoc on your third down conversion rate.

There were two turnovers which are the most serious of crimes for an offense. It turns out Leak should have never been on the field to throw his interception because of the head injury in the previous series. Tebow was caught in no man’s land with his fumble, but the ball has to be guarded with dear life when backed up close to the end zone like that.

That leaves just two more drives to end not due to a penalty or dropped ball, but probably due to the play of the defense. Both final plays were third down and 10-plus yards which is a difficult hole to get out of.

A look at the drive charts really shows that what the Gators are really lacking in execution. That is on the players of course, but certainly it is on the coaches who are putting these players in those positions to make or not make the plays.

I don’t have much to talk about the defense in a negative light. The worst thing seen was the occasional medium passes that happened. The Stafford kid will be a great one and had the Georgia receivers been able to handle the fireballs he was throwing, this game could have been really different in the final outcome. Still, the defense made the Georgia receivers pay when they caught the ball and when they didn’t, and that made a huge impact on the game.

As much as I praised Brandon James for his punt returns, he also wasn’t helpful when he took a kickoff and ran sideways at the ten yard line only to be tackled there. He will grow out of that realizing that the speed of college players is a notch above what he was able to do in high school. He hasn’t had many chances at kick returns this year, so his learning should be accelerated by every return.

WHAT TO DO: I’m going to leave the defense alone, but on offense I would change just a few things and I touched on them above. I would start with making things a little simpler. One thing that seems apparent to me is that the Gators have had superior talent almost across the board than the team they are lining up against every week. There are a few exceptions, like the defensive ends at Auburn and Georgia, but I don’t think an entire game plan has to be devised around two players. Besides I am all in favor of challenging those players every once in a while and run it right at them, this can slow them down some especially if it works,.

Next I make it a point to have my older players getting the third down conversions. The dynamic plays of Harvin and Fayson are great, but they have enough to think about lining up and running the right route. Then to add a first down spot to their line of thinking makes their brain work a little over time.

I think Meyer and company learned something at the end of the game with Wynn running the ball. When Georgia knew the Gators had to run it and they lined up and then couldn’t stop DeShawn Wynn from running that was a sure sign that they should have run him more and earlier when the Dogs didn’t know he would run.

Of course they have to work on the penalties. They were responsible for stopping one third of the unsuccessful drives. Most were caused by the offensive line and it is a young group that just went through a gauntlet of defensive fronts. A little bit of leniency can be given, but things have to change for the better. I don’t think any more than repetition will fix this and they will get that.

Those are my three quick fixes to make the offense flow a little better. I have never been a coach but have worked for many. I just think these are simple solutions that can create a more efficient offense.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: Vanderbilt will be a little tougher on offense than most think. They have a very good and mobile quarterback that will probably give the Gator defense a few fits before all is said and done. The wide receiver Earl Bennett returns from last year and is probably their best player. Still, the Gators should be too much for them up front on defense and should create a lot of negative plays for the Vandy offense.

On defense, Vandy is nothing special. This is a chance for the offensive staff to not have to worry about personnel and just go out and execute a game plan. They should be able to create mismatches all over the field. This should be a good game for the Gator offense.