When the season began, you could pretty much figure that the Georgia Bulldogs were going to line up two wide, I-formation with the quarterback under center. That’s what they’ve done since Mark Richt became the head coach, but a combination of injuries and a freshman quarterback means that the Florida Gators have to plan for a few new wrinkles this week.
Georgia’s premier tailback, Thomas Brown, is out (knee) for the rest of the season and that impacts the Georgia offense because he was the speed back that could get outside the tackles and turn a play upfield. Brown’s replacements, Kregg Lumpkin and Billy Ware, are more straight-ahead runners, far more comfortable between the tackles. Lumpkin is Georgia’s leading rusher with 475 yards. Ware has Georgia’s longest rushing play this season (41 yards).
Lumpkin and Ware will get their fair share of carries Saturday when the Gators face Georgia in Jacksonville (CBS, 3:30 p.m.) but they might do most of their running from a new look. Freshman Matt Stafford will be starting his second game at quarterback and the offense is being adjusted to accommodate what he’s most comfortable doing.
“They came out last week and did something they haven’t done a lot of,” said Florida Coach Urban Meyer after Tuesday’s practice. “I want to say in their first 12 plays there were seven throws. They came out in a little bit of of shotgun, spread them out and I heard Coach Richt make the comment that’s what he [Stafford] did in high school, and he’s more comfortable doing that so they’re doing a little more spread the field with Stafford at quarterback so we’re obviously preparing for that as well.”
Stafford threw for two touchdowns last week in a 27-24 win over Mississippi State, but he also threw three interceptions. His numbers for the season are 67-125, 849 yards, three touchdowns and seven interceptions, indicative of a young quarterback that is struggling to match the speed upgrade he sees in college defenses.
As a high school senior, Stafford threw for 4,018 yards and three touchdowns in Texas while leading his team to the state championship.
“We loved him in high school,” said Meyer, who adds that Stafford was “one helluva player.” Florida didn’t recruit Stafford heavily, however, because the Gators were looking for a mobile quarterback that is more of a running threat and Stafford is a dropback passer.
“We like to have a guy that can move around a little bit but we thought he was one of the top five quarterbacks in the country last year, easily one of the top five,” said Meyer.
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While the look of the Georgia offense has changed, the Georgia defense is still doing pretty much the same thing they’ve done during the Mark Richt era. The Bulldogs run two or three different looks and they will pretty much run the same exact schemes out of every look.
“They’ll have an odd three down [lineman] package but mostly it’s four down and they’ll do a few changeups from a variety of looks,” said Meyer.
This is in sharp contrast to the LSU defense which not only shows a lot of different looks, but moves its personnel all over the place and has different blitz and cover schemes from each look.
“With LSU you spend half the day trying to figure out what they’re trying to do,” said Meyer.
“They’re not crazy and all over the place with their defense,” said Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. “They’re very sound and you just have to make sure you’re sound, putting your guys in good positions to make plays.”
Mullen said that Georgia’s defense is fundamentally sound and not prone to making game-altering mistakes.
“They don’t play crazy blitzes and unsound defense,” said Mullen. “You just have to block them. They don’t give you a lot of tips what they’re going to do. All their adjustments are slight adjustments off their base defense.”
Meyer said the key to handling the Georgia defense will be controlling defensive ends Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson. Moses led the SEC in sacks last year with 11.5 while Johnson had four. This season, Moses has three sacks while Johnson has 4.5.
“Can you handle those defensive ends?” Meyer said. “That’s where we’re spending all our time.”
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Last year Meyer said he was overwhelmed when he ran out of the tunnel onto the field at AllTell stadium in Jacksonville for his first Florida-Georgia game. It’s a unique setting where the stadium is divided equally.
“That was powerful stuff when you job out of that tunnel and you saw the stadium like it was,” said Meyer, who compared this to rivalry games he’s been a part of in previous coaching stops such as Ohio State Michigan and USC-Notre Dame.
While Meyer thrives on the rivalry games, he knows that some young players just aren’t aware of the significance of such games.
“I guess I’m old fashioned but it means the world to me to play in rivalries like this,” said Meyer. “Honest go God, I think some of these young people just wonder where’s the next meal? What time’s study table and is my girlfriend mad at me? Now there’s other ones that really understand it.”
During the week in the Florida locker room, Meyer has highlight videos of previous Florida-Georgia games playing continually.
Although Meyer said that on game day, Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott may not have any meaning to the players that will play this game, the outcome Saturday will have an effect.
“It matters in recruiting,” he said.
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Meyer said part of the enjoyment of coaching college football is when he gets to watch highlight tapes of great high school football players that he’s going to have a chance to recruit.
“That’s why I came to Florida,” he said. “I really enjoy doing that. When I see a highlight tape of a premier player I usually call up a couple of coaches and say and say ‘hey watch this! Come on into my office!’ You know how many plays it takes to see a real primo play? About three plays then move on to the next player but I usually watch the next 40 because I love to watch them.”
Asked how many Percy Harvin plays it took for him to know that the freshman was going to be a prime time player, Meyer said, “About three plays and I was good.”