With notches on their belt that include Tennessee, Alabama and LSU, the Florida Gators are halfway through the nation’s most difficult schedule, unbeaten, moving up in the rankings and elbowing their way into the national championship picture. The big picture may look good for the Gators, but Coach Urban Meyer says his task is to keep his team focused on whoever the Gators play next.
Next up for the Gators is a road trip to Auburn next Saturday against a team that was ranked number two in the nation prior to a stunning, 27-10, loss to Arkansas this weekend. Although they’ve fallen from the unbeaten ranks, Meyer knows that this Auburn team is one of the most talented teams in the SEC, capable of beating anyone. Getting his team emotionally and physically ready to play a third straight game against an exceptionally talented team is a daunting task that has has Meyer examining how the Gators go about everything from practice to game preparation. He’s not as worried about emotional burnout as he is physical exhaustion, however.
“It’s not so much emotionally but physically,” Meyer said in his Sunday morning teleconference. “We’re evaluating our practice schedule every day. We lighten up. It’s the middle of the season. It’s game seven coming up.”
Tuesday practice has been labeled “Bloody Tuesday” because of its tough, physical nature, but now that it’s midseason, the veterans will get a break from the intense contact. After the Auburn game, Florida will get a week off prior to playing Georgia in Jacksonville and that will also be used to rest the players for the final stretch of the season.
“I’ll certainly get them rested in the bye week but you have to be cautious,” said Meyer. “My concern is not that we’re not going to go out and hit you. We out-hit as talented a team [LSU] as there is in America and I really believe we did that. I watched the highlights on my TV show and we out-hit that team so to go out there and have major collisions with the older players, we’re not going to do that. Some young ones we’re going to keep developing.”
Keeping players fresh for the duration of the season has to be a concern, but that can’t take away from what has gotten the Gators this far, which is staying in the moment and playing it one game at a time.
“Basically it’s a one game season for us [and that] is the way we’re going to react,” he said.
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At some schools, having two quarterbacks in and out of the game could become a major problem but Meyer says the Gators have been able to keep a lid on it because senior starter Chris Leak and freshman backup Tim Tebow are “both high character people.” Meyer feels the backup quarterback has to see the field in something other than mop-up situations so that if the starter goes down with an injury, there is very little difficulty in the transition.
“We want to play them both because you want your backup to be ready,” said Meyer. “Last year we were unable to do that. We didn’t make the progress we needed behind Chris. This year we’re making progress at a very rapid pace and we’re hard to defend that way.”
Saturday, both quarterbacks contributed mightily to Florida’s cause in the 23-10 win over LSU. Leak connected on 17 of 26 passes for 155 yards while Tebow ran nine times for 35 yards and a touchdown and he completed both of his passes for touchdowns, a one-yarder to tight end Tate Casey and a 35-yarder to Louis Murphy.
Meyer said the purpose of using the two is two-fold: to develop the backup quarterback and to keep the defenses off balance. Meyer said that Leak understands the reasoning.
“The good thing is that Chris knows that it has nothing to do with it’s not like you make a bad play and we’re going to pull you out,” said Meyer. “It’s part of the game plan. The intent is to keep the defense off balance not have the quarterbacks looking over their shoulders.”
Even with the acceptance of their roles by Leak and Tebow, however, Meyer keeps a close eye on the situation to make sure there is never a controversy.
“I’ve heard stories and I’ve actually been around people that it wouldn’t work because they’re selfish and it’s an I before team mentality,” said Meyer. “This has been made very clear for the last year and half that this is the way it is. There are a few guys out there that are no longer a part of this team because I saw that. That’s a cancer, that’s a bad deal. You want to tear your team down, you have that in your program and it will go bad fast.
“The good thing is I don’t hear that. I keep watching for it because there is a lot of human element in it. You’re 6-0 for the first time in a long time. We’re managing an offense against pretty good defenses. We have two very high character people that want to win.”
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Just call Jemalle Cornelius “Captain Cornelius.” The senior wide receiver continues to make plenty of big plays in every phase of the game that he is involved but his most important contribution might be what he means to the team as a leader.
“We rotate captains each week but he’s the one consistent guy,” said Meyer. “He’s out there. He does the talking. He’s my guy. The other guys are hood ornaments. They go out there and wave to the crowd so their moms and dads can take pictures of him but Jemalle Cornelius is the captain of this football team.”
Asked why Cornelius is the guy that does the talking, Meyer answered, “I trust him and I don’t want to re-teach it every week. Jemalle Cornelius has earned that right.”
Saturday against LSU, Cornelius factored in the running game with one carry for seven yards. In the passing game he caught three passes for 40 yards including a 26-yarder. On special teams, Meyer said Cornelius created the alley that allowed Reggie Nelson to block a punt.
“He just does everything for me,” said Meyer. “The punt block that Reggie Nelson had, he [Cornelius] had a big role of that because he crossed the line of scrimmage so hard.”
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Part of Meyer’s Plan to Win each week is winning the field position battle. Never was its importance more obvious than the start of the third quarter in Saturday’s win over LSU. The Gators got a safety on the opening kickoff when freshman Riley Cooper forced a fumble into the end zone and that gave the football back to the Gators on a free kick. Florida drove for a touchdown on the ensuing drive, so in a matter of a couple of minutes, the Gators went from a tenuous 14-7 lead at the half to a commanding 23-7 lead that forced LSU out of its game plan.
Meyer said the Gators earned 200 yards of change of field position above the norm with that sequence of events.
“When Riley Cooper … that was possession plus two points plus field position,” said Meyer. “We added that up so you had 200 yards above and beyond average change of field position.”
Another freshman, Wondy Pierre-Louis, contributed to the field position battle when he streaked down under an Eric Wilbur punt to nail Chevis Jackson at the LSU six.
“If I had to pick a most valuable player it would be hard for me not to pick Wondy or Riley Cooper,” said Meyer.
Meyer added that the team took notice of Cooper’s play, too.
“The reaction in the locker room to Riley Cooper was as strong or stronger than Tim Tebow,” said Meyer.
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On the injury front, defensive tackle Javier Estopinan went out on the fifth play of the game with a knee injury. He is being evaluated Sunday but it doesn’t look good for him.
“It looks like a season ending injury,” said Meyer. “I’m worried about that one. He’s a very valuable member of our team. He’s my ace on special teams. On punt team he was my main guy. I love that guy. I think he’s as important as anybody on this team.”
Meyer said that senior tailback DeShawn Wynn could have played in a pinch Saturday but he wasn’t 100 percent.
“He was less than 100 percent and we would have used him if we had to use him,” said Meyer. “As a coaching staff if you’re not full speed at a skill position that’s just putting him in harm’s way and we didn’t want to do that.”