On a Monday that brought out the quarterback in every fan in Gator Nation — all you had to do was listen to sports talk radio whenever the discussion turned to the University of Florida — Urban Meyer put it all in perspective for multitude of doom and gloomers when he pointed out that problems aside, UF is 7-1 and closing in on an East Division championship in the SEC.
“Someone says well what’s the best thing going?” Meyer asked rhetorically at his Monday morning media event. “Well, we’re 7-1, and we’ve got a lot of things going.”
That’s right the Gators are 7-1, a couple of plays away in one mistake-filled second half at Auburn from being one of the few undefeated teams left in the country. Considering so many experts said that with Florida’s schedule the Gators couldn’t expect to do better than 8-4 or maybe 9-3 this year, it is rather interesting that suddenly 7-1 has so many crying about how bad things are. If you listened to the talk shows Monday you would think the Gators have tanked the season and all that’s left is a win for pride over Vanderbilt to avoid the SEC East cellar.
Instead, the Gators have the possibility of clinching the SEC East Saturday if they win at Vandy and Tennessee loses to LSU, which is entirely possible considering that it’s highly unlikely that Erik Ainge will be anywhere close to 100 percent. And no matter what Tennessee does, if the Gators beat Vandy and beat South Carolina a week from now they go to Atlanta with a shot at claiming their first SEC championship since 2000.
Now this is not to say that Florida’s seven wins have been pretty. Style points have been few and awfully hard to come by lately and this isn’t soccer, which the Euros call “the beautiful game.” Beauty may be found in 0-0 soccer ties in Europe but here in the SEC, where there’s life, death and football, it’s all about winning and losing. Florida is winning right now and it doesn’t necessarily matter how the Gators are doing it. As Larry Vettel said after the win over Georgia, “This is like the NCAA basketball tournament … you win and you advance. That’s all that matters now.”
Florida has advanced to the point that great things are on the horizon. Some of the wins haven’t been pretty. If you were going to paint a portrait of the 2006 Florida Gators you might be advised to heed the words of Oliver Cromwell, who told his own portrait artist, “Paint me, warts and all!”
Cromwell had a face full of ugly warts and you could safely say the same thing about Florida’s second half offense in the last two games. The Gators haven’t scored an offensive touchdown in the last two second halves. In the final 30 minutes of the last two games the Gators have shown a penchant for fumbles, interceptions, dropped passes and penalties, the kind of things you expect of SEC bottom feeders, not what you expect of the seventh-ranked team in the nation.
Consider the Georgia game. Florida lost a touchdown on a 66-yard punt return by Brandon James to a penalty and missed two field goals (a five-yard penalty factored in Chris Hetland coming up two yards short on a 42-yard attempt). Florida also had three drive-stopping first half penalties (two holds and a false start) and three dropped passes on third down, two of which were certain first downs and the other would have been close but probably would have made it. The Gators had runs of 23 and seven yards nullified in the fourth quarter because of holding calls, plus there was a Chris Leak interception and a Tim Tebow fumble, both of which led to Georgia’s only scores.
Those weren’t the only problems. The Gators have an uncoverable wide receiver in Dallas Baker, but he only saw the ball twice against Georgia and has only four catches in the last two games. Jemalle Cornelius, Mr. Big Play in wins over Alabama and LSU, caught the only pass thrown to him Saturday. Leak was forced to throw in a hurry too many times and after the first drive, nobody was fooled by what Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow did.
It shouldn’t have been close. Florida got a win because the Gators had just enough offense and more than enough defense. This is a defense that can erase a lot of mistakes but you can’t count on the defense providing another great escape like the one against Georgia. Next time Florida has eight offensive penalties and a critical special teams penalty, all the defense in the world might not matter.
Meyer knows things have to change quickly. Even though the Gators have already navigated through a gauntlet of SEC games that makes Florida’s schedule toughest in the nation, the Gators have to take care of business against Vandy and South Carolina if they intend to make it to the Georgia Dome as the SEC East champ. Defense alone won’t get the Gators there. At some point the offense is going to have to chip in and that means eliminating the dumb mistakes, mistakes that Meyer took responsibility for Monday.
“I take responsibility,” said Meyer. “I’m a guy that kind of in our own staff meetings watched other coaches worrying about other things other than their own team but here I am worrying about possessions and clock rules and my team’s having what looks like a lack of discipline on offense with turnovers and penalties. Lesson learned. You will not hear me discuss [that anymore]. We have to correct a lot of things on offense.”
Okay, everybody knows that the first step toward eliminating a problem is admitting you’ve got one. So consider the first step taken. Knowing you have a problem and knowing what to do about it are altogether different matters.
“At some positions we’ve been overmatched and because of that you get penalties,” said Meyer. “Those penalties and turnovers are a sign of a lack of discipline which we have to get corrected.”
Florida turned the ball over 13 times in 12 games in 2005. Through eight games, the Gators have thrown eight interceptions and lost nine fumbles. The Gators have committed 74 penalties, tops in the nation, and they’re losing 64.2 yards per game in penalty yardage. But you can’t simply measure the penalties in the yards the zebras step off.
“We had just about 200 yards of offense/special teams taken away from us on the eight offensive penalties and obviously the one block in the back or hold on the punt return,” said Meyer. The Brandon James punt return was the second touchdown he’s had called back this season. Florida might not have had to struggle to come away with a victory had a James punt return against Tennessee counted.
Meyer wouldn’t blame his players for the penalty problems.
“It’s all coaching,” said Meyer. “These are 18-20 year old guys. Behaviors are either learned or allowed. Everybody’s behavior you either condone it or stop it. Obviously we’re not doing a good job so we have to stop it.”
So the coaches will work overtime this week. Meyer knows the problems and he knows what has to be done to correct them but he’s on the clock and it won’t stop ticking. Complicating the issue is the fact that Vanderbilt will play Florida very confidently in Nashville Saturday. The Commodores lost the score but felt they were robbed of the game by an over-zealous zebra last year in Gainesville. By their reckoning, this is a paybacks are hell game.
Is there enough time to solve enough problems before Vandy? Is there enough bubble gum and baling wire to patch together an offense that can make it through four more regular season games and an SEC title game? Can Florida’s defense answer the bell one more time? And what if the offense doesn’t exactly find itself? Can the defense and special teams carry the Gators until December when there is an entire month to get ready for a bowl game?
While Meyer is trying to answer these and a hundred other questions, Gator Nation needs to keep in mind that this 7-1 Florida team has faced four of the nation’s top 24 defenses and five of the top 31 in the last six weeks. It’s not like the defenses haven’t had a hand in disrupting the offensive flow. And remember, too, the Gators have an offensive line that had a combined 20 career starts entering the season and the tailback position has been totally healthy only one game all season. All things considered, you would have to agree this is not art, but can you honestly say that 7-1 with a real shot at Atlanta isn’t pretty?
So yeah, there are problems. And yeah, the coaches plan to fix them. He didn’t sound like a coach lacking confidence Monday when he said, “If I stand up here when I don’t enjoy coaching this team — which I’ve had to do that a few times — we’d have a problem. We don’t have that problem. We’ll get it fixed.”
If he does, the magic of this mystery tour just might take the Gators through some uncharted waters. All the kids on this team came here to win a championship. There isn’t one player on the team that’s won one at UF. All that could change in a few weeks and it doesn’t have to be pretty to be a thing of beauty.