In the words of Zoolander’s Maury Ballstein, “That’s what I’m talkin’ aboooooout!” In so many ways and for so many people, this game was just what the fictional fashion agent doctor ordered. Champ called it a “statement game,” which you rarely see a coach do. And he was just talking about the in-season situation of being the SEC opener on the road in one of the most electric college football atmospheres in the country. But we know in reality, this was a statement game off the field as much as anything that happened on the field. I don’t want to overstate things, but if Will Muschamp “goes the distance” a-la Moonlight Graham, this game may be remembered as an historic win for the new ball coach.
Response is the Reason
The thing that matters most in this game is the very strong suggestion – if not clear indication – that Coach Muschamp is not only a pretty good head coach, but he has secured the full buy-in from this team that is necessary to become an elite program again, and we are starting to see the manifestation of that mentaility. The buy-in that is almost never immediate like it was when Spurrier arrived; the buy-in that took the entire off-season and fall season of 2005 before it truly came together for Urban Meyer; the buy-in that never happened for Ron Zook.
The buy-in is evident in many aspects of the game of football – and certainly this game – but one of the most critical elements that I look for is the way a team responds to their coach. Coaching response. It can occur (or not) during practice, at halftime, amidst a drive, off the field, etc. In the terminology of Spurrier, it’s when the players play the way they’re coached – they do what you tell them to do.
One area where it was very evident is the response to the coaches’ focus on reducing penalties. Last week, 14; this week, 3. A 79% reduction in penalties in one week is a pretty good indication of the respect and authority a coach has over his team. Another area that obviously jumps right out and smacks you in the face is the second half response of the defense. There were clearly strategic adjustments made in the second half that I’ll touch on in the next section, but also very important was the energy level and intensity with which they played. As a fan, it certainly made me lose my first half trepidation just knowing we were playing with our engine on red again. It’s a real sign of buy-in and confidence in your coaches’ plans and adjustments when the team in unison responds at such a higher energy level and executes the plan.
Defensive about the First Half
The defense took a lot of heat for its first half performance (or lack thereof), particularly in real time, but the visceral reaction to the seeming inability to stop the Aggies was significantly overblown from a couple of perspectives. I say “seeming inability” to stop them because the Gators did stop them once and should have stopped them another time. If not for a needless personal foul penalty and a couple of falls on the defense allowing a long QB run, the first two Aggie drives would have been three-and-outs instead of long drives resulting in ten points. The final score would have been 20-7, and probably worse for the Aggies since the UF offense would not have been on the bench for over ten minutes as those two drives continued on. So from one perspective, we were two plays away from dominating the first half almost as much as we dominated the second half. And if those plays had been stuffed, who knows if the Aggies would not have lost confidence and never had the fortitude to score even the last TD?
From another perspective, they did as well as should have been expected, given that with which they had to work. Not having film on the new staff’s offense was valid but misunderstood by a lot of Gators fans. Those who were red-faced in the first half, demanding to know why the UF staff were so clueless as to not have watched Houston film from last year to scout the offense only understood about half of the story. Had the UF staff not watched Houston film to inform their defensive plan this week, they would have been daffy. The problem with the complaint, however, is that the UF staff DID watch Houston film. Of course they did. But there were a lot of things that Houston film couldn’t tell them.
Specifically, an inordinate number of Aggie plays – particularly their successful plays – were gimmick plays, trick plays or busted plays. You can’t adequately prepare your defense for these kinds of plays and they are very difficult to defend. Film from Houston won’t tell you they’re going to run a bunch of gimmick and trick plays that were not part of their regular offense. Film of Houston won’t tell you that the never-before-seen freshman QB is tremendous at creating big yards out of busted plays. Film from Houston won’t tell you that this team has been preparing for this SEC opener the entire off-season and preseason, and pulled out every stop they knew to pull in order to confuse and trick the superior defense. Even with creative offensive minds like Spurrier in his prime, the most gimmick or trick plays you can expect in a big game is a few, maybe a handful: three to five, tops. But Saturday, a full 41% of the Aggies’ positive plays of over three yards in the first half were gimmick, trick or busted plays. When you add up all the Aggies’ first half plays that went for any positive yardage, 42% of them were gimmick, trick or busted plays, including both touchdowns, another touchdown that was called back and the longest Aggie play from scrimmage, over 25 yards. Of all their straight/standard first half plays, only 42% of them went for over three yards. Only ten of those standard “Houston offense” plays went for over three yards, while nine were stopped for zero or negative yards. The rest were insignificant gains of a yard or two. So when making halftime adjustments, Champ & Quinn astutely surmised that if we just stopped playing our preferred, aggressive style of defense, and contain the QB in the pocket instead of attack the pocket, measure our pursuit and play simple assignment football, the tables would likely turn.
The Big O and a Happy Ending
So everyone is keenly aware of the dust that was blown off the playbook this week. We saw the offense that we expected to see when Brent Pease was hired. Call me demanding, but no matter how good an offense or offensive coordinator is for three-plus quarters, I find only the truly elite coordinators maintain and boost their game when the outcome is on the line in the last five minutes of the game, whether protecting or seeking a lead. We’re a long way from inducting Pease into the Florida Ring of Honor, but I was impressed with what I saw on the game-sealing drive. What I really liked – besides winning the game, of course – is that he did not wait until third down to get creative and aggressive. Patton’s end-around and Driskel’s naked bootleg were both on second down, catching them completely off-guard and netting big gains for first down. There are so many more things a defense can do on third down, and the traditional, conservative lead-preserving offensive timidity usually sets up a lot of third downs. I think it is telling that Pease recognizes this and did not let his offense and young quarterback get painted into those third down traps on the final drive.
Talk to Me, Goose
Mike Gillislee showed again Saturday why he is such a valuable back: versatility. On his two touchdown runs, he displayed the skills you usually need a tandem of backs to fulfill. On touchdown No. 1, he was met between the one and two yard lines and barreled his way through the tackler to push and carry him into the end zone. On touchdown No. 2, he used elusiveness and speed to escape would-be tacklers and dart to the sideline, and then the balance of a Wallenda to go against the momentum of his body to stay in bounds for the last five yards of the run.
Despite how great Gillie has shown up this year and how much our signal-caller has been criticized, I came away from this game thinking that our Top Gator may be our Top Gun, even though he doesn’t show the look or demeanor of Iceman: the best player on the team right now may just be Jeff Driskel. Looking over his passing chart, he connected passes to both sidelines and the middle of the field; he was accurate shallow, medium and deep. He had a half-dozen runs for positive gain – half scripted, half on his own after finding no open receivers – including his last run, a planned naked bootleg where he outran the defensive end, juked three defenders in the secondary and dashed for 21 yards and the first down that essentially ended the game. About the only thing he didn’t do very well Saturday was check down (though he did do it successfully on some plays), which all young quarterbacks have to learn, and avoid the sacks. Some of the sacks were partly his fault, but also the temporary blindness of the officials (more on that later). Rest assured, Pease will be in Driskel’s ear all week to throw the ball away when he is outside the pocket and about to run out of bounds.
And what really showed through in the fourth quarter was his poise and composure – the very thing that some fans (very inaccurately, in my opinion) criticized him for last week. He managed the offense and made big plays to ice the game like a fifth-year senior would. And when asked after the game what he learned about his quarterback against A&M, Muschamp immediately replied, “Not one thing! I knew it going in.” He told us he could win with either quarterback, and it appears he did in fact know it going in.
That’s the Trick
Trick plays are the things that fans love when their team does them, and hate when they get burned by them. They can be a unique form of rubbing it in to the opponent’s face while garnering the adoration of the fans. But the thing about trick plays is that they have to work. When the trick play works, the coach is a genius—when they don’t, the coach is an idiot. Trick plays were a signature of Spurrier and Meyer, and they almost always worked. Trick plays were also a different kind of signature for Ron Zook, because they almost never worked for him. The last two weeks showed us the distinct difference in the two. Last week, Champ’s IQ was called into serious question when his trick punt by Driskel went about as far as your average boulder rolling uphill. This week, the fake field goal he called netted a first down, and a 15-yard penalty in the bargain and led to the Gators’ first touchdown. The play and the subsequent flag would prove to be invaluable in the final margin of the game, those additional four points meaning the difference between winning and losing.
Too Cute For You
“Too Cute For You” is the name of a precocious group of child crooners who won the only episode of “Star Search” I remember watching in my life (though I know I watched it regularly as a kid). I don’t know why it sticks in my head except for how obnoxious I found their name. Almost as obnoxious as I find coaches who try to pull a fast one by calling a timeout the nanosecond before the ball is snapped for a game-winning or game-impacting field goal attempt. That’s what A&M coach Sumlin did on the 51-yard attempt by Sturgis. He got the timeout so late that the play went off. The kick that didn’t count clanked off the right upright. Given the chance to kick again, Sturgis nailed it and secured the three points that eventually won the game for them. Sometimes being too cute is too bad.
That’s Right, Bert
I never liked Brent Musburger. No need to list the reasons why – they are obvious to all. That’s why I got such a kick out of the time many, many moons ago when Brent interviewed then-champ Mike Tyson in front of a big pre-fight press crowd, and Iron Mike kept calling him “Bert.” After every question with a positive answer, he’d begin his response in his squeaky little Elmo voice with, “That’s right, Bert.” And “Bert” didn’t dare correct him.
Well, Bert was in rare form Saturday, practically jumping out of the booth every time A&M made a yard or tackle in the first half, and wanted to write a 40-chapter book about our penalty issues after just our first procedural flag of the day (one of only two, and three fouls total). But you could almost hear his teeth grinding in the second half as he blandly delivered the news of each positive play and score by the Gators. But just to top things off, he had to try to harsh Gator fans’ mellow, to toss cold water into our smiling faces in our afterglow, following the post-game interview with Coach Champ by asking Herbie, “Can Florida compete with Alabama, LSU and the powers of the SEC?” His way of saying, “Yeah, this was okay, but you guys still can’t beat the ‘real’ teams in the SEC.” My question to Bert is this: After Bama & LSU, who exactly are the other “powers of the SEC” to which he refers? Because newsflash Bert: the only other one is Florida, and his insult of omission was not overlooked. And we’ve been battling that foe for 2 years now. If we subdue it, then Bama and LSU will be sucking our exhaust again, like they did for the 20-straight years before the previous two seasons.
Volunteers on Tap
Here are two things to watch for next week when the Gators visit Knoxville:
1) Fast Start. Texas A&M week was about reducing penalties. Tennessee week will be about getting off to a better and faster start on both offense and defense. After falling behind to start the first two games of the season, going seven and ten points in the hole, respectively, the meme and mantra in practice will be that if they keep that up, eventually they won’t be able to come back and win. With ample film on the UT offense and the Gator offense hitting a very nice stride in the second half Saturday, look for both to have a good shot at establishing a lead early this week.
2) The defense will finally have a decent opportunity to get sacks and turnovers, because they’ll finally face a “normal” offense; that is one that isn’t afraid of our advantage in speed and athleticism, and thus not compensating in their game plan by employing exclusively the quick-hit short passing game. UT will trust its offensive line to hold their blocks, call slower developing plays and look to take their shots downfield, giving Florida opportunities it never got against BGSU and A&M. Also, Bray has neither the senior experience of Schilz, nor the mobility of Manziel. Disguising coverages and blitzes will be more effective and there will be no collective “hold the corral” plan that negates the pass rush; the Gator D-line will be cut lose.
Larry King Me
I’ll close with a stream of consciousness list of things I liked or noted about the game, a style that pays homage to the weekly column written years ago by the late Larry King. I don’t mean to imply that Larry King is dead; he’s just never on time.
*We may not have the best punter in the nation, or the best place kicker in the nation, but we definitely have the best punter and place kicker duo in the nation.
*No forced turnovers again this week (the one INT last week was an unforced error – the gift of a volleyball set by the receiver). It was apparent, especially in the second quarter, that the defenders were trying to strip the Aggie ball carriers, but to no avail. Because that never works. Fumbles are caused by hitting, not slapping; they’re caused by the impact of contact, and putting a helmet or fist on the ball.
*The defensive backs played at an All-American level most of the day and the unfairly maligned Jon Bostic came up very big, especially after fellow linebacker Jelani Jenkins went out of the game.
*If Gillislee misses time this year, the running game will suffer, but we are developing our backups. Matt Jones showed good moves and a little burst and Mack Brown ran with authority and good ball protection in the fourth quarter when the Gators needed it to salt the game away.
* After a year of wallowing in wasted assignments on a worthless offense, Trey Burton is again going to be a very valuable part of this football team this year.
*The Aggies led the nation in sacks last year. Now I know why. They tackle and hold on the offensive line all day long. On two of the sacks, it was so criminal, I’m surprised arrests weren’t made. On the sixth sack, Koehne could not get to the blitzing linebacker because the defensive end was dragging him to the ground by his facemask. On the seventh sack, the defensive end grabbed and held Koehne by the jersey at both shoulders and pulled & threw him to the ground to gain penetration. When they face the Alabama O-line later this season, it will be the perfect storm of uncalled holding penalties.
*Something the team has been sorely lacking the last two years has been play-makers: players who make something out of nothing and make the difference in close games against strong opponents. Some of the players who made something happen Saturday: Driskel, Gillislee, Burton, Reed & Patton. Last week’s big-play specialist, Frankie Hammond, did not add to his resume with big gains Saturday, but he more than made up for it with his blocking that made so many of the big plays against Texas A&M possible. Now we just need some guys on the defense to do the same by grabbing some game-changing turnovers.
*Muschamp to me clearly lost his poker face after this game. In the post-game on-field interview as soon as the game ended, he actually smiled. A lot, even. A few times you could even count all his teeth. Felt good to see him get that level of gratification after working so hard for so little thanks for the last year and a half. And he also showed a little of the cocky attitude that Gator fans have always appreciated in their head coaches when he said, gesturing to the A&M fans in the stands, “To be able to come out here in this environment, to be able to disappoint these people is a lot of fun.”
*The A&M and Missouri games produced exactly what all SEC fans wanted (or should have wanted, at least). The old guard SEC teams showed that even though they may not be at the top of the league, they are still superior to the comparable teams in other BCS conferences. That said, the two new additions are in fact very strong teams and programs and it was a good move inviting and accepting them. Except for wanting UGA to lose as we all did, the outcomes were very satisfying.
Those are my thoughts on Game Two. I expect Game Three – another SEC tilt on the road in one of the most electric college football atmospheres in the country – to be another close and exciting contest. Until then remember that each day is a gift – that’s why they call it the present.