Gators Must Avoid Critical Mistakes This Year

If you just go by turnovers forced (5) and sacks (5) last year, the Florida Gators did plenty to win the game against LSU but the only numbers that really mattered were those on the scoreboard when the game ended that read LSU 21, Florida 17. Florida did a lot of things right on defense, but the Gators made mistakes in critical situations and that proved to be the difference in the game.

The Gators gave up long touchdown passes of 43 yards (to sprinter Bennie Brazell) and 27 yards to Dwayne Bowe, but the pass that stands out more than those two was a 31-yarder that was essentially a jump ball. On a third and nine at the Florida 43 in the fourth quarter, JaMarcus Russell launched a Hail Mary that Bowe leaped to catch in front of Florida safety Kyle Jackson, who was caught flat-footed. Two plays later, Joseph Addai powered into the end zone and LSU had its margin of escape in a game that the Gators seemed poised to steal on the road in Baton Rouge.

The memory of those three long passes still lingers in Brandon Siler’s mind. The Gator middle linebacker knows that except for those three plays, Florida played well enough to win.

“It was a tough loss as all losses are,” said Siler after Wednesday’s practice, “but you have to do everything you can to win and we didn’t. They got that long pass on third down that we should have knocked down and they got behind us for two long passes and the game got away from us. Those are plays we had to make but we didn’t.”

Saturday, when the fifth-ranked Gators play host to ninth-ranked LSU at The Swamp (3:30 p.m., CBS) the Gators know that they can’t afford to let LSU make big plays in critical situations, especially in the passing game if they’re going to extend the home winning streak to 13 games and Coach Urban Meyer’s personal winning streak at home to 11 games.

“We’re going to have to play this game better than we have ever other game we’ve played this year,” said Siler. “That means we have to play hard and get after people from the first play and keep it up. We can’t afford a letdown on a third down.”

Third down conversions were critical in that loss last year. The Gators only made two of 16 third downs. LSU made only five of 15 but one of the third down conversions resulted in the touchdown pass to Brazell on LSU’s first possession of the game and another third down conversion was the jump ball pass to Bowe in the fourth quarter.

“Look at our game last year we hung in there pretty good except for three passes that got over our head, two touchdowns and the third down and nine play,” said Meyer after the Wednesday practice.

Meyer said he can’t remember a time when one of his teams forced five turnovers and then lost the game.

“I can’t remember that ever happening and it’s a shame that we were a part of it because our defense kept us in that game,” he said. “Throw five sacks on top of that and you should win that game.”

LSU got the win last year with Russell and his big play receivers making plays when they needed them. LUS is equally dangers in the passing game this year because they are loaded with big, tall and fast wide receivers. Craig Davis has caught 25 passes for 394 yards and one touchdown, Bowe (three receptions, 81 yards and one touchdown in last year’s win) has caught 21 for 353 yards and three scores, and Early Doucet has 18 receptions for 272 yards and four TDs. Doucet has been timed at 10.3 in the 100 meters.

Russell is back at quarterback and he’s one of the top passers in the nation. He’s thrown for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing just one interception. Russell is 6-6, 220 and blessed with one of the strongest arms in the country. He throws an excellent deep ball and that’s what the Gators have to be prepared to stop.

“They have three receivers that can really run and the kid loves to throw it deep,” said Meyer. “I think that we can hang in there if we can cover the deep ball.”

Florida is giving up 197.8 yards per game passing but that number is a bit deceiving. The Gators have allowed only three touchdowns and they’ve picked off eight passes. Florida expects to see a lot of pass attempts every game because the Gators have the ability to make teams one-dimensional. The Gators lead the SEC and rank among the nation’s leaders in run-defense, giving up just 50.2 yards per game and only two yards per carry.

The Gators will give up size in the secondary. Bowe is 6-3, Davis is 6-2 and Doucet is 6-1. Florida counters with starting corners Ryan Smith and Reggie Lewis, both 5-10, and 5-9 Tremaine McCollum first into the game off the bench in cover situations. When LSU goes three wide the Gators might have to risk putting 6-1 Reggie Nelson in one-on-one coverage. While Nelson has coverage skills and can shut a receiver down, by moving him from free safety into one-on-one coverage, the Gators lose their eraser in the back of the defense. Nelson has four interceptions in five games including one he ran back 70 yards against Alabama to put the punctuation mark on the win last week.

LSU’s offense is well balanced although the Tigers are only running the ball for 2.8 yards per game so far. Meyer says the running stats can be deceiving for the Tigers because they’ve had blowouts by halftime in three of their four wins.

“They still have some good backs,” said Meyer. “They’ve had some games that it’s over by halftime. You’re flipping, watching film and it’s 35-0, 49-0 and 35-7 by halftime so a lot of times your stats get hurt in the second half. They’re a better team than they were a year ago.”

THOMAS SIGHTING: Suspended defensive tackle Marcus Thomas was once again sighted at practice but Meyer says there is no change in his status.

“We’re just running him, getting him in shape,” said Meyer, who once again gave no indication when Thomas will be back on the team for good.

Once Thomas is back with the team, however, Meyer thinks the conditioning will be the only real issue.

“He’s played a lot football around here so it would be more conditioning than anything else,” said Meyer.

ALSO ON THE INJURY FRONT: Freshman sensation Percy Harvin got in a better practice Wednesday than he had on Tuesday. Harvin is trying to come back from a high ankle sprain that limited him in the Tennessee and Kentucky games and kept him out of the Alabama game completely.

“He did a few things today and we’re going to try to advance him tomorrow,” said Meyer.

Harvin has touched the ball 16 times for an average of 14.3 yards every time he’s making a play.

Tailback DeShawn Wynn didn’t practice Wednesday but Meyer remains optimistic that there is a possibility that the 230-pound senior tailback could play. Wynn has a team leading 354 rushing yards and last year against LSU, he ran for 93 yards on 16 carries.

“He didn’t do anything today but they tell me there’s still a chance,” said Meyer.

If Wynn can’t go, Kestahn Moore will step into the starter’s role at tailback. He’s got 160 yards for a 5.3 average per carry this year. Meyer indicated that Brandon James and Markus Manson have had good practice weeks in the backup roles at tailback.

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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.