Some Florida fans will tell you that you have to go back to Sept. 27, 2008 to find a time when the Gators did not convert a third- or fourth-down play.
Such was the respect for the ability and tenaciousness of quarterback Tim Tebow, who never seemed to miss one since that day in the Swamp when Mississippi stuffed him on fourth-and-1 at the Ole Miss 32 to preserve a 31-30 victory. Ironically, that was the last time Florida lost a regular-season game until last Saturday, when top-ranked Alabama used a fourth-and-goal interception on Florida’s first possession to steal the momentum in an eventual 31-6 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Tebow is now playing quarterback in the National Football League with the Denver Broncos, leaving Urban Meyer’s club without their seemingly automatic third- and fourth-and-short option. The Gators thought they had a couple in freshman quarterback Trey Burton, who scored six touchdowns against Kentucky, and sophomore running back Mike Gillislee, but it’s clearly a concern as Nos. 14/12 Florida (4-1, 2-1 SEC East) prepares for a visit from Nos. 12/9 Louisiana State (5-0, 3-0 SEC West) Saturday night at 7:30 in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (ESPN).
“We felt good (about their short yardage offense) going into the Alabama game and now we don’t feel so good about it again,” said Meyer on the Southeastern Conference’s weekly Wednesday teleconference.
Against Alabama, Florida was just 3 of 13 on third-down conversions and 1 of 3 on fourth-down conversions against Alabama. For the season, Florida is converting on 41 percent (26 of 63) of their third-down plays and 62 percent (8 of 13) of their fourth-down plays. Those are numbers most teams would gladly have, but because of Tebow’s abilities, they are not up to the Gators’ standards.
“We felt that Trey had done a good job against Kentucky in the red zone and that (Mike) Gillislee has been our downhill runner to get the first down,” Meyer continued.
Alabama wasn’t going to allow Burton any room to maneuver when Meyer put him behind center Mike Pouncey when Florida got into the red zone. Burton took four snaps inside the Alabama 5 and produced just three rushing yards on three carries (two of which started with bobbled snaps on his part) and a Nico Johnson interception when Burton tried a jump pass to tight end Jordan Reed.
Gillislee didn’t get a chance to get rolling after he suffered a sprained foot on a second-quarter kickoff return, leaving the tough-yardage duties to Emmanuel Moody, who couldn’t punch the ball in, either.
The inability to score would ultimately reach its low point when quarterback John Brantley took a direct snap from Pouncey but was tripped up by pulling guard Carl Johnson and never got the ball cleanly to Moody on a second-down play, the ball falling to the turf and being recovered by Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw.
“If we’re going to hand it off, it’s going to Gilly first and Moody second,” Meyer continued. “It comes down to blocking and we’ve got to improve in that area, especially at tight end.”
Without a true, big blocking tight end, Florida has tried converted quarterbacks Reed and Burton and converted wide receiver Omarius Hines there and also used offensive lineman Xavier Nixon there to block.
That is not Florida’s only concern heading into the game with the Tigers, who survived a Tennessee upset bid by scoring on the last play of the game to win 16-14 in Baton Rouge. Meyer was not pleased with a breakdown on Florida’s punt coverage team that allowed Julio Jones to return a punt 41 yards in the second quarter.
“There were a lot of disappointments in the game and that might have been No. 1,” Meyer said. “We have to do better but that’s obvious. That’s the first time that’s happened and we’ve got to get it fixed. It’s No. 1 – the No. 1 concern on our football team right now.”
That’s because LSU brings perhaps the nation’s best return man in junior cornerback Patrick Peterson. In five games, the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Peterson has 15 tackles and 2 interceptions at cornerback and is averaging 28.2 yards on kickoff returns and 23.6 yards on punt returns, two of which he has returned for touchdowns.
Meyer reported that Brantley, who threw two interceptions (one of which the Crimson Tide returned for a touchdown) and didn’t seem comfortable in the pocket, practiced Tuesday, though he was still feeling the effects of being sandwiched by two Alabama tackles and suffering some damaged ribs.
Demps, who had limited practice entering the game last week because of a sprained foot suffered against Kentucky, was at practice Tuesday but was limited. Gillislee, however, was full go, according to Meyer.
“Johnny (Brantley) practiced yesterday – he’s sore but he practiced,” Meyer said “He’s feeling better – he’s already been in. We hope to use Trey a little bit at quarterback. The offensive line is intact. I believe they are at 100 percent, ready to rock and roll. Demps is probable. He did not practice yesterday (Tuesday) but he was out there and moving around. He didn’t practice full but Gillislee did practice full.”