When the Florida Gators headed for Tuscaloosa this time last year, they were undefeated and ranked fifth in the nation, coming off a win over Kentucky that was a tale of two halves — one well played and one that lacked in many areas of execution. The poor half didn’t send the right signal to his team last year and Coach Urban Meyer knows the Gators paid for it in Tuscaloosa.
“We went into Alabama last year and we had all the answers as a football team,” said Meyer during his Sunday morning teleconference. “We got on a plane and went to Tuscaloosa and we knew exactly what we were doing. We were doing well and we blamed our mistakes against Kentucky on our second string and it reflected that way in practice.”
The Gators were ambushed in Tuscaloosa. With a loud, rowdy crowd lending plenty of vocal support, Alabama dismantled the Gators in practically every phase of the game. By the time the clock struck zero, Florida had its first loss and the Gators were exposed in several different areas.
When Alabama comes marching into The Swamp Saturday, with the exception that the Crimson Tide has a loss and the game is in Gainesville, you would think that not much has changed. The Gators are the fifth-ranked team in the nation and they’re coming off a win over Kentucky that was a tale of two halves.
Last year, the Gators beat Kentucky 49-28, in Lexington and after a brilliant first half in which Florida scored on every possession for a 49-7 lead, the doors almost came off. Meyer tried to play his reserves the entire second half, but late in the game he was required to send in the first team to stop the Kentucky rally.
When Florida beat Kentucky, 26-7, Saturday night, it was another tale of two halves. The Gators allowed the Wildcats to control the clock in a first half when Kentucky appeared to have the Gators on the ropes. It wasn’t until the final two minutes when a perfectly executed two minute drill allowed Florida to drive the ball 78 yards in seven plays for the go-ahead touchdown that the Gators really looked like a team in control. In the second half, Florida held Kentucky to 65 yards of total offense and only the Gators could stop themselves offensively. In many ways, the second half was a nice recovery but Meyer saw far too many glaring errors.
“Fundamentally on offense we took a step backwards,” said Meyer. “Our quarterback fundamentally took a step backwards. Our ball security which is a fundamental on offense took a step backwards. Defense, it was one of our worst games as far as assignments.”
Last season it was easy to point to youthful inconsistency for the second half problems so there weren’t many red flags raised after beating Kentucky. This year, the problems — especially those on defense — will be addressed with a very tough week of practice. The Gators held Kentucky to only seven points and 249 total yards, but Meyer knows it was far from Florida’s best effort.
“We shut them down pretty good in the second half but the expectation level of our coaches and players on that side of the ball is much higher than we played,” said Meyer. “There’s a lot of disappointment right now. We’re anxious and the players in the locker room are anxious to get back at it Monday.”
Meyer felt many of Florida’s inconsistencies against Kentucky Saturday night could be traced to a practice week that got out of synch Tuesday. Bad weather sent the Gators indoors and Meyer admits not much was accomplished.
“Tuesday’s practice was non-existent because we had no film to watch and we didn’t go outside because of the weather,” said Meyer. “Obviously, we don’t have an indoor facility so there was no preparation that took place on Tuesday. We can’t have that.”
In Meyer’s practice scheme, Tuesday is the team’s only hard contact day of the practice week. The Gators dress out in full pads and scrimmage hard on what Meyer calls “Bloody Tuesday” because he expects the practice to be very physical and an indicator of where the team is in terms of focus and preparation for the next game. Meyer said Sunday that he’s learned his lesson about canceling this important day of practice.
If the weather is bad this Tuesday afternoon, Meyer said, “I’ll cancel practice and bring them back at midnight if I have to. We will never miss another practice on Tuesday.”
After last season when the Gators lost three critical SEC games on the road including that 31-3 disaster in Tuscaloosa, Meyer decided to go through every element of how the team is prepared for games, not just on the road but at home. He consulted coaches that he respects and asked for their advice. He got some pretty good advice from Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan, who took the Gators to the national championship back in March.
“I think Billy Donovan said it best,” said Meyer. “He talked to our team this year and when he coached his basketball team he made the comment that you have to go to work every day with a little edge — a chip on your shoulder — and if you don’t you’re going to fall backwards. That’s coaching. That’s leadership. That’s seniors. There will be a little chip on our shoulders starting immediately when I see those kids come in today. We didn’t play great. Guys gave effort. They were running but we have to play much better than we’re playing.”
* * *
Alabama lost its first game of the season when its placekicker missed three field goals including one in overtime that could have won the game. Also, in the overtime, he missed an extra point and that proved to be the difference as Arkansas squeaked out a 24-23 win.
The Gators had placekicking problems of their own Saturday night. Kentucky blocked two extra points and when the Gators had the chance to score a touchdown on a fake field goal late in the game, there was failure to execute properly. Four games into the season, the Gators have missed five extra points and they’re 0-2 on field goals, plus 0-1 on fake field goals.
At this point, Meyer is concerned with placekicker Chris Hetland’s confidence but he believes Hetland can get the job done.
“I had a lot of confidence going into the season that he would hit those field goals because he did it a year ago,” said Meyer. “I think he’ll hit those field goals.”
But the problems extend beyond the kicker. There have been problems with the holder at times and there have been problems with the snaps and handling the blocking assignments properly.
“I don’t think the long snapper’s job is safe or the left guard on the field goal is safe,” said Meyer, implying that perhaps there are other positions on this unit that will be addressed in practice. “We just have to get better.”
The way Kentucky was rushing three extra players in the gaps up the middle, Meyer felt the Gators could fake the field goal and score a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Holder Butch Rowell is a backup quarterback, quite capable of running the option. The play was set for him to take the ball to the edge and pitch to Hetland.
“It was a touchdown,” said Meyer. “We just have to pitch the ball off the end … it was a touchdown, all we have to do is go execute the play. It was well blocked. All we had to do is pitch the ball to the kicker and now it’s a footrace.”
* * *
Meyer said the secondary might have to change certain elements of its coverage packages. Kentucky never got a deep ball against the Gators but the Wildcats did complete 26 of their 38 passes. Tennessee also threw for a high percentage against UF but the Gators did a good job of taking away the deep ball there, too.
The problem Meyer sees is that the Gators are giving up too many short completions and that allows opponents to control the ball against the defense.
“What we do, we are a fire zone team that usually leaves us three deep three underneath and there’s a lot of open space,” said Meyer. “Teams are doing a pretty good job of picking it up and getting the ball out. We have to re-evaluate what we’re going to do.”
* * *
The Gators were second in the nation in turnover margin last year. This year the Gators have thrown five interceptions and lost three fumbles. Florida has picked off five passes but the Gators have forced only four opponent fumbles and they have yet to recover one.
Meyer is concerned about the fumbles and he knows that teams that turn the ball over rarely beat sound defensive teams like Alabama.
“Guys that are putting the ball on the ground or making the bad decisions with it we’re going to limit the number of touches they get and just work awful hard on it in practice,” he said. “The game we’ve got coming up, if you’re negative in turnovers, I’m not sure you win that game.”