Dealing with adversity

Practicing on Sunday was never part of the original plan but then again, nobody ever expected to lose to Ole Miss, either. That’s why the Florida Gators found themselves on the practice field Sunday evening. After tanking against unranked Ole Miss at The Swamp, there was a team meeting and an unplanned practice Sunday evening. If there wasn’t a sense of urgency about this football season prior to Sunday, there is one now.

Urban Meyer didn’t exactly say there was a sense of urgency when he met with the media at noon on Monday but he didn’t have to. It was evident in his facial expressions and his body language that this had been a very stressful weekend. He knew there would be adversity this season but he just didn’t expect it this soon.

“We practiced yesterday, really the first time we’ve done that on a Sunday,” said Meyer. “I had to get around the players. We all had to get around those players and kind of put closure to a bad day. We practiced yesterday and I was impressed with the way they came out.”

The bad day, which ended in a 31-30 loss and plunged the Gators from fourth to twelfth in the national rankings, was highlighted by 11 missed tackles, three turnovers, hitting only two of 10 goals in the kicking game, converting one out of 11 third downs and losing the field position battle by allowing Ole Miss to start its offense on the Florida side of the 50 six times.

That led to a somber post game press conference in which Heisman Trophy quarterback Tim Tebow apologized to the Gator Nation for playing poorly and vowed that he would elevate his level of play through a never before seen work ethic. He also vowed that the Gators would not lack for effort on the practice field the remainder of the season.

That led to the team meeting on Sunday that preceded practice. Meyer wouldn’t disclose what went on at the team meeting but he’s presided over a couple of memorable team meetings in his four years at Florida.

The first was in 2005 when the Gators came back to Gainesville after an emotional loss to South Carolina in Columbia. That one was held in the plane while it sat on the tarmac at the Gainesville airport and it lasted a full two hours. Florida came out breathing fire against Florida State in its next game and then beat Iowa a month later to win the Outback Bowl. The second was after the loss at Auburn in 2006. An angry team meeting was followed by one of the hardest hitting weeks of practice any Meyer team has ever had. Seven straight wins and a national championship followed.

In both those instances, veteran players took charge and made it perfectly clear that anything less than maximum effort was unacceptable. Vernell Brown, Jeremy Mincey and Jarvis Herring called out slackers and said either get on the bus now or get run over in 2005. In 2006, Brandon Siler drew a line in the dirt and challenged anyone to cross him.

Adversity was turned into a positive by both those teams. There has already been adversity on this 2008 team, mostly in the form of injuries that have had a crippling effect on the team, but this was a first loss and it knocked the Gators off track toward reaching their team goals for the season. The team meeting had everything to do with handling this latest round of adversity.

“We had a solid team meeting and made it real clear that it is a long football season,” said Meyer. “The thing I made real clear to them is that it is not a question of if a team will deal with adversity and injuries. It is not if, but we’ve all been around this a long time. The question is not if, but how you deal with it. At some point during the course of a year — 12-0 seasons, 13-1 seasons or 9-4 seasons — you are going to deal with adversity. You’re going to deal with injuries. How do you deal with it? We’re going to find out. I’ve got a feeling I know how we’re going to deal with it. That will be with a very hard week of practice and come out and deal with an SEC team.”

Meyer said the team meeting and practice were a necessity to “get rid of the bad taste in your mouth.” He never went into detail about the things that were said at the team meeting but evidently it was a necessity to clear the air about a variety of issues.

“Myself and some other people had some things to get off their chest and if you want to say something lets say it,” he said. “The human element takes over. What happens is and we’ve all been there — can’t stand being there — but you lose a game once in a while and the first thing that happens is you feel sorry for yourself and the second thing is you point a finger. That’s everywhere. That’s from little league to Buchholz volleyball to University of Florida football. I’ve heard it; I’ve seen it. Those are big boys … gotta get that taste out of their mouth. They were good. I liked the way we approached it.”

Arkansas (2-2, 0-1 SEC West) is next on the agenda. The Razorbacks, who have already played more than 20 true freshmen, are nothing like the Arkansas team the Gators faced in the SEC Championship Game in 2006. That team, coached by the same Houston Nutt who led Ole Miss to that stunning win over the Gators Saturday, had two first round draft picks alternating at tailback so it was a 70-30 run-pass offensive mix. Bobby Petrino is the new coach at Arkansas and he is probably 60-40 with the emphasis on the passing game.

This isn’t a very good Arkansas team that the Gators are facing, but Ole Miss wasn’t exactly burning it up either. Meyer can only hope that the loss to the Rebels had the effect of a shovel to the forehead. He needs an angry, but focused team to show up for practice every day this week. Having been there and done that when it comes to team meetings, he knows what to look for.

“If a guy throws his helmet and kicks the dirt that doesn’t make him angry,” said Meyer. “If you play with a little chip on your shoulder, pay great attention to detail, and you come together … that’s how you make those kinds of statements.”

Ole Miss ran a game plan quite similar to the one Miami threw at the Gators in game two. The Rebels tried to take away Florida’s running game and on passing downs, they brought pressure from a number of angles. While Miami played the Gators in a three-deep scheme designed to take away the deep ball, Ole Miss brought the pressure but ran more straight man coverage and that left the deep ball in the middle of the field wide open.

Receivers were open in the middle of the field. The only problem was the Gators didn’t hit those passes.

On Florida’s final drive Saturday, Ole Miss brought pressure and the Gators tried to beat the Rebels in the middle of the field. On second down, Louis Murphy was open around the 15-yard line but Tebow double-clutched his throw as he backed away from the pressure and then he flipped a pass off his back foot. Instead of a game-winning touchdown, the ball led Murphy by five too many yards and fell incomplete. On the next play, Percy Harvin had inside position on a post pattern at the five-yard line. Once again, Tebow was backing up to avoid the pressure and he threw too long off his back foot.

“How do you beat pressure?” Meyer asked rhetorically. “You make them pay and we’re not doing that right now.”

The pressure the Gators are feeling from the blitz isn’t anything like they will feel if they don’t respond to this first knockdown of the season. They have a choice to make and if they don’t make the right one, then a season that held so much promise when it began is going to fade away fast.

The right choice is to regroup and refocus.

“I was part of a team that was 12-0 and we dealt with some stuff,” said Meyer. “Maybe not with defeat, but we dealt with injuries and we dealt with issues that your team had and they came through it. We’ve also had a team around here that went on — actually two of them … in 1996 and 2006 — that had it. I’m not in a position to describe it but it is not whether you are going to have it [adversity], but how you are going to deal with it? It is early to tell. I made a comment earlier that I like this team. I like the team because there is some maturity there and there is a very invested group of people. That usually pulls yourself through those [situations] … usually. We’re going to find out. We’re going to put a lot of pressure on ourselves, our staff and our players this week. A lot of pressure.”

INJURY REPORT: The Gators will probably be without tailback Emmanuel Moody (high ankle sprain) and offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert (sprained ankle) for the Arkansas game.

Guard Jim Tartt, who had to leave the Ole Miss game early when he reinjured a shoulder that has had three surgeries, will be day to day probably the remainder of the year.

Asked if Tartt might be an every-other game player the rest of the year, Meyer responded, “I hate to say that but there’s probably some truth to that.”

With Tartt and Marcus Gilbert out, Carl Johnson will move into the starting lineup. The guard position, which started the season as a strength, has been depleted with the loss of Tartt, Mo Hurtt and now Gilbert. That puts the pressure squarely on Johnson’s shoulders to produce.

“Carl Johnson is a fine player, a talented player who was a highly recruited guy,” said Meyer. “He has a lot of ability. It’s time to go.”

Backing up Johnson at left guard and Mike Pouncey at right guard will be James Wilson and Ron Wilson. Meyer also said that freshman David Young will get extended work in practice.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.