Instant Analysis: Hawaii-Florida

A season opener against an undermanned opponent won’t define a 12-game campaign, but even when a contest lacks suspense, it can still teach a team how to handle bigger battles ahead. There were lessons to be learned, then, for the Florida Gators even after they strolled past Hawaii in the 2008 lid-lifter at the Swamp.

The first thing the Gators need to take to heart is the need to sharpen their focus in particularly crucial situations. Sure, Urban Meyer—like any football coach—wants maximum concentration on each and every snap, but since human beings are imperfect creatures and college football players are human beings, it’s that much more important for the Gators to ramp up the attention to detail when it matters most.

The play that revealed and amplified the need for crunch-time concentration came in the first quarter, with Florida facing a 4th and 1 at the Hawaii 41. With Tim Tebow likely to convert a first down (on 4th and 1, the Gators simply need to let No. 15 do his thing and get out of the way), Riley Cooper someway and somehow found a way to gum things up. Cooper’s false start penalty forced the Gators into a punt on 4th and 6.

In football, no two penalties, turnovers, pass plays or first downs are alike. The same actions, outcomes and statistics have different levels of meaning and weight, given their location in the larger progression of a game. Coaches and players alike need to pay attention to this reality. The Cooper penalty is such an illustrative example—a supremely teachable moment in an early-season college football game for a team with championship aspirations—because it shows how much of an effect one mistake can have on a game. Just because the Gators rolled to a massive win doesn’t mean that one false start didn’t impact the first half of this afternoon’s game in Gainesville.

For an offense with Florida’s firepower, a false start on 2nd and 4 doesn’t mean that much in the bigger scheme of things. Mr. Tebow can erase a 2nd and 9 without too much difficulty. But on 4th and 1 in enemy territory, that same false start flag—that same five-yard mark-off—carries a lot more weight and impact.

Similarly, on defense, some offsides penalties—like the ones the Gators made in their ragged and uneven first quarter—wind up sustaining drives for the opposition. Those lapses in focus are much more damaging than, for instance, an offsides penalty that merely changes a 2nd and 13 to a 2nd and 8. In the game’s first 15-20 minutes, the Gators made mistakes that stopped their own drives and perpetuated possessions for Hawaii. Even though the Warriors from Honolulu didn’t dent the scoreboard, the Gators’ offense was kept off the field to the extent that Florida didn’t register its first points until the game’s 19th minute, in the second quarter.

Urban Meyer can tell his team that despite the lopsided final score against Hawaii, the Gators made mistakes that, against Miami (next week) and SEC foes, will lead to a lot more anxiety and discomfort.

The second lesson the Gators need to learn from this game, flowing from the first point about focusing in key situations, is as follows: With the new clock rules that have been installed for this season, it is that much more important for Florida—with its ultra-potent offensive attack and special teams superstars such as Brandon James—to get off the field on defense and be a third-down rock of Gibraltar. The total amount of plays per game will decline appreciably this season in the college football world, so if the current Heisman Trophy holder is going to be able to compile a season that is statistically similar to his triumphant 2007 campaign, it’s Florida’s defense—paradoxically—which will enable that to happen.

Aside of those early penalties—the lapses that provided Florida its teachable moments this afternoon—the Gators looked quite solid.

With Dorian Munroe out for the season, Florida needed to receive some encouraging news in the secondary. And while Hawaii was playing with a quarterback who occupied a lower place on the Warriors’ depth chart (since Tyler Graunke, the heir apparent to Colt Brennan, missed out on this opener due to academic problems), the results of this afternoon’s game still had to be encouraging for Charlie Strong and the rest of UF’s defensive braintrust. Joe Haden picked up where he left off in 2007 with a very strong and active game. As a tackler and ballhawker, Haden made his presence felt in a number of ways. Major Wright played passing lanes superbly, posting a pick-six to fuel Florida’s second-quarter surge that enabled the residents of the Swamp to breathe more easily.

Elsewhere on defense, A.J. Jones and Lawrence Marsh flew across the gridiron for much of the first half, creating havoc—as all superb defensive players do—and gumming up anything and everything the Warriors had to offer. With their step-up efforts, Jones and Marsh had to encourage their coaches for the simple fact that UF’s defense needs to bring quality depth to the table in 2008. Given the injuries that have ravaged the Gators on defense, the sight of anyone filling a gap—and filling a need—is really good news for Florida’s overall team outlook.

As for the offense? Well, this kid named Tebow can still play the game. This wasn’t a dazzling effort, but in a season-opening game without Percy Harvin against an inferior opponent, the full array of Tebow talents didn’t have to be on display. (It will need to be saved for the heavyweight fights that loom ahead on the schedule.) But just the same, the Gators—after being kept off the field for the first quarter—finally found rhythm and confidence in the game’s middle third. Late in the second quarter and (especially) early in the third, Florida began to bust out the big plays, a credit to the Gators’ team speed and a function of the declining strength of the overmatched Warriors.

A solid win, no big injuries, and a few teachable moments brought about by some early penalties. All in all, those are the kinds of things—mostly good, but with a few nagging deficiencies to keep kids honest—that make for a good season opener.