There was no hesitation whatsoever Thursday afternoon when Coach Urban Meyer was asked if his ninth-ranked Florida Gators are ready to face the number 25 Georgia Bulldogs Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS TV) in the annual rivalry showdown in Jacksonville. Meyer sounded like a coach that’s ready to get on the field and play the game.
“We’re ready to go.” said Meyer after practice, sounding as confident as he has before any game this season. “We had an excellent Thursday. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t play well because our guys have had two weeks of very good preparation and it’s a great game to play in.”
Fueling Meyer’s confidence is the fact that the Gators might be as healthy as they have at any point this season. This might be the first game the Gators have played with a complete roster of healthy players in the two seasons that Meyer has been the head coach. That’s a startling contrast to last season when Florida went into the Georgia game with only one healthy wide receiver — Dallas Baker — and he was hurt early in the second quarter after tearing it up with five catches in the first.
Florida played the Auburn game a couple of weeks ago with defensive end/tackle Ray McDonald and wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius playing below strength and tailback DeShawn Wynn still trying to feel his way back into playing shape after a knee injury a couple of games earlier.
“The guys that played and played below their ability level are Jemalle Cornelius and Ray McDonald,” said Meyer. “They’re the guys that needed this break and we’ve taken advantage of it with them.”
Meyer said that Wynn looks to be at full speed once again and that freshman Percy Harvin “is the guy that’s really full speed for the first time.” Harvin got five carries for 62 yards in the loss to Auburn a couple of weeks ago and that was his first extended action since going down with a high ankle sprain early on in the Tennessee game.
Having Cornelius playing below par hurt Florida’s cause against Auburn. In wins over Alabama and LSU, Cornelius was responsible for several big plays both on offense and special teams. He’s averaging 19 yards per catch (17 catches) but didn’t touch the ball against Auburn. Meyer said Cornelius has been plagued by a tight hamstring.
“Jemalle’s just under full speed,” said Meyer, who added that he hopes having Friday off will help loosen up the hamstring. “We have to be smart with him because he’s a valuable member of our team.”
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During the off week the Gators have been trying to address the problem of getting the ball more into the hands of their playmakers. Part of the problem is the lack of plays thanks in part to the new NCAA clock management rules, but also in part because the Gators have not played good third down defense which has allowed opponents to control the clock.
Even with the clock problems, Meyer knows he needs the ball to get the ball in the hands of Baker, who enters the game with 35 catches for 556 yards and six touchdowns. Baker had four catches against Auburn including a touchdown on a fade in the corner of the end zone.
“We have to use him more,” said Meyer. “I’m not sure how many [catches] he had against Auburn but obviously he didn’t have enough.”
Meyer said that Baker has been going against outstanding corners each of the last three games, but even so the 6-3 senior needs to get the ball more often.
“The corners he’s faced the last three weeks are all NFL caliber corners,” said Meyer. “LSU, Auburn and Alabama have terrific corners and he’s played well. He’s caught two fades for touchdowns and he played well against LSU.”
But Baker is only one of Florida’s playmakers that need to see the ball more.
“We have some playmakers that we have to get the ball,” said Meyer.
Meyer said that during the off week the coaching staff has spent hours trying to find ways to distribute the ball better to the playmakers. Florida wants to spread the field to create space for playmakers to make plays but the scheme is driven by what the players do best.
“What we try to do is do what our players do well,” he said. “What does Chris [Leak] do well? What does Tim Tebow do well? How is the best way to get the ball into Percy Harvin, Bubba Caldwell’s hands?”
Against Auburn, the Gators ran Harvin at tailback and they used Caldwell in the running game on wide receiver sweeps.
“They matched up well at corner so we handed it to them,” said Meyer. “Bubba probably had more rushing yardage (47) than he’s ever had but am I pleased with it [offensive production]? No. I think we need a lot more yards than we have now.”
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Meyer has had the Gators preparing all week to face a Georgia offense that will operate more from a spread formation out of the shotgun with freshman Matthew Stafford as the quarterback. Typically, the Bulldogs are a two-wide, tight end, I-formation team that tries to balance the run and the pass. With Stafford at quarterback and their fastest tailback, Thomas Brown, out for the rest of the year with a knee injury, the Bulldogs may choose to go top heavy with the passing game against the Gators.
“What I’m intrigued about is are they going to come out with the spread formations because now that’s their quarterback and usually coaches— and Coach Richt does a good job of it —do well is if he’s a shotgun spread quarterback, put him in the shotgun and spread. That puts some of those athletes on the field.”
Meyer said he really likes Georgia wide receiver Mohammed Massaquoi, whom he called “a great player” and kick returner Mikey Henderson, whom he expects to see some action at wide receiver. Henderson has returned two punts for touchdowns so he’s proven himself as a gamebreaker.
“The guy that really concerns me but doesn’t have a lot of catches is Henderson the returner,” said Meyer. “He’s an extremely fast playmaker. I read a couple of articles that they’re trying to get him more involved in the offense and I can see why because he’s one of the faster guys on the field.”
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Meyer wants freshman Brandon James to get more chances to do some damage with punt returns but part of that problem is getting the defense off the field before the ball is close to midfield.
“When you get to midfield you don’t have much of an opportunity for a return,” said Meyer. “A lot of times we’re in punt safe where you’re much more cautious because of fake potential. When you get them backed up is when you get the great punt return.”
The critical issue is getting three and outs on defense.
“We’re not great on third downs right now,” said Meyer. “That ties into punt block and punt return. Those all happen on the minus side of the field. If you let them get past the 50 yard line then you’re in punt safe and it’s just a different game. The punt return isn’t used.”
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Earlier in the week Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weiss griped that Florida and Tennessee had leapt over Notre Dame in the polls. Weiss said, “Well, the things that surprise me are in that situation — I’ll just cite a couple of them, like one of the teams that jumped us had the same game that we had. Another down, they’re playing at home, they’re down and they win by a field goal. Another team that jumped us wasn’t even playing. They’re sitting at home eating cheeseburgers, and they ended up jumping us. So that befuddles me.”
The cheeseburger reference was obviously to the Gators, who had the off week.
Asked if he’d grilled cheeseburgers last weekend, Meyer laughed, shook his head and said, “I heard that … no … unbelievable.”
Meyer said he thought he had a steak, but in a chat on Gator Country Wednesday night, Meyer’s wife, Shelley said, “Uh…it was actually Mexican day at the Meyer’s. We had tacos!”
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Meyer is a student of the history and rivalries of college football. He was part of some of college football’s storied rivalry games as an assistant coach when he was at Ohio State and Notre Dame, but he now believes the Florida-Georgia game is the top rivalry game he’s been a part of.
“Probably the best… it might be the best,” said Meyer. “I think it’s two good programs and a great history but what makes it unique is the venue. I love the history of it as well as anybody but the uniqueness of the 50-50 split [AllTell Stadium seats split 50-50 between Georgia and Florida fans] and I guess Texas and Oklahoma have one but I can’t imagine it being better than this one.”