Every game this season has carried the program and the perception of Gators fans to a new level.
The visits to Texas A&M and Tennessee were harbingers of possible greatness to come.
The Kentucky game showed that the team had reached the maturity level to avoid let-downs against lesser competition.
The LSU game was the big statement that the team was truly back to the elite level of competition, though there is still ground to cover to become a complete program.
The Vanderbilt game showed that the team has the resources to win any way they need to.
But this South Carolina game was something different. Something bigger. This thing just got real. Very real. The 2012 season just catapulted to a different conversation. It’s no longer about what the program might become; it’s what they are this year, today, right now.
The New Season
Coach Muschamp and staff have done the amazing — some would have argued they’ve done the impossible. They have transformed the Gators in one year from a 7-6 season where most people kept asking themselves a-la the late, great Trey Wilson in Bull Durham, “How did we ever win seven?” to a 7-0 season start. And after beating South Carolina, this season has just changed. As in, two steps from a perfect regular season “changed”. Though there are five games remaining in the regular season, there are only two opponents left that can challenge the Gators. Only games with UGA and FSU stand between the Gators and a 12-0 regular season.
But most significantly concerning the disposition of the SEC Eastern Division championship, Coach Boom and the team have taken care of business every week and reduced the year to a one-game season. The math is simple: beat Georgia and the Gators clinch the East. Florida would then have three games to work out any and hopefully all issues the team has and ramp up any schemes and tendencies they want to later break. In baseball terms, they would get to set up their rotation for the FSU game and Atlanta. Not bad for a team that is coming off what many consider the worst season in thirty years, and a head coach whom a number of fans at season’s start still doubted was the right hire.
How did that happen so quickly? So completely? So transcendentally?
First Play: Checkmate
Part of how it happened was evident on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Everyone knew that with the strength of the two defenses (and the injury issues on both offenses), one of the keys to a victory would be the mental aspect of coaching staffs matching wits. The Gators staff made a big statement on the first play from scrimmage that they had Spurrier and his staff covered on this day. Being a student of the Game and of Florida football history, Muschamp had no doubt that Spurrier would open his first drive looking to shock and rattle the Florida defense with a deep pass. They knew that Connor Shaw sitting in the pocket, looking downfield for a slower-developing play would be an opportune time for a corner blitz. Not only did it work, the resulting fumble set the tone of the game and set Carolina’s collective mental condition into serious trouble for the rest of the day. Seldom is a game decided on the first play, but this may have been as close as it gets. If nothing else, it signaled that the Florida staff had every Carolina offensive move checked, and had enough unexpected offensive moves of their own to salt the game.
The New Florida Gators
Breathe it in, Gators fans. This is the new Florida. In the last two ultra-successful Gators coaching regimes, Florida held a decided mental advantage over its opponents, but it was generated by vertigo. The Florida offenses would bury opponents and take away their will through blazing speed and dizzying creativity and execution. Florida defenses would do the same through more speed, a ton of opportunism and some muscle in the middle. But this era of Gators football has cast its image differently. This program is a punisher. It doesn’t matter if it is first play of the game or a blowout in the fourth quarter, these Gators hit and pound the opposition into submission, and they keep pounding them. When a team takes the field against Florida, the Gators let them know on every play exactly who they are facing. Every player on the other side knows that if they want to gain a yard, if they want to deny the Gators a yard, they’re going to pay for it in flesh and blood and a lot of pain. When the game is over, every player on the other side of the field KNOWS that they just played the Gators. They know it from every bruise, every ringing ear, and every aching piece of their anatomy. And they don’t want to play them again.
If you’re looking for a player that epitomizes the new Gators program, it is Trey Burton. Although he is one of the most athletic players on the team, and made a living early in his career by avoiding contact on the way to the end zone, he has taken up the banner of punishing football and run with it. Look no further for evidence than a third down on Florida’s first drive of the second half. Burton ran the wildcat and was stopped two yards short of the conversion, but he smashed through not one, but two tacklers at the same time to stretch it across the marker. And these weren’t Kentucky defenders or Ole Miss defenders; these were linebackers from one of the best and toughest defenses in the country. Then one play later, Burton threw the devastating block that sealed the perimeter for Omarius Hines’ decisive touchdown run.
And special teams excellence — near perfection, really — takes away the last hope opponents have of sparking momentum on a big play in the “in-between” phase of the game. And the Gators do it with the same physical pounding and torment that they impose on defense and offense.
This is the new Gators. And really, it is the new SEC. Alabama and LSU have the same mindset, and South Carolina is almost there as well. Complete absence of any part of this concept is one reason Tennessee disappeared from the top of the conference on a national elite level and Georgia has never appeared there. And right now, there is only one team in the SEC — and thus the nation — that can claim to be playing this style of football any tougher, any stronger, and nastier. And if the Gators and Tide keep winning, we’ll see who is at the top of this mountain in Atlanta. It is a style of play, a program-wide mentality that will dictate that even when all the pieces are not working well, this team will still be a grizzly bear to overcome. And besides the obvious reason as a Gator fan, I want Florida and Alabama to face off in Atlanta this year — because I want to see that matchup! And I have a strong feeling it will repeat in Atlanta many times in the future.
Coffee is for Closers
This in my estimation is the biggest strength of the New Gators: they close the game. Period. Whether the Gators are ahead or behind at halftime, we know one thing going into the third quarter: the Gators are going to outscore the opposition the rest of the way and the opposition probably is not going to score at all. When the fourth quarter begins, that mantra doubles. Last year, nary a week went by where Alec Baldwin didn’t grab the P.A. microphone and shout, “PUT THAT COFFEE DOWN!!” But this Gators team — whether it is the defense stuffing any chance of an opposition comeback, or the offense making plays to extend game-sealing drives or score game-winning touchdowns, or Caleb Sturgis nailing game-winning field goals – isn’t just keeping their jobs; isn’t just getting a set of steak knives; it’s getting the free trip to Hawaii, all expenses paid.
And they’re enjoying their coffee.
I was a bit surprised that we called nothing creative on offense in the first half. Just our standard set, despite being dominated on every drive that started outside the red zone. As the team exited the field for halftime, it occurred to me that the coaches may have done this by design, not only Saturday but the entire season. If they can afford to, they choose to withhold their more inventive plays and drive strategies for the second half so that the opposition does not have the opportunity to see it in the first half and then counter it with full halftime adjustments. In-game adjustments can be and are made all the time outside of the midpoint locker room break, but it is much more difficult to communicate and coordinate them in real time, and of course the staff has only the time between plays to recognize, strategize and install the personnel and communicate the instructions to the players.
The worrisome elements of anyone’s mind would throw up a red flag that this sort of approach could eventually bite a team in the hindquarters, but we also see time and again how some of the creative offensive-minded coaches do show too much too soon and it hurts them down the road. A coach like Dana Holgorsen, for instance seems to feel the need to empty his playbook every week under the pressure to score a million points a game (although, with that typical Big 12 defense they have, it may be more out of necessity). Well, eventually that coach will run up against a defensive-minded opponent like Tommy Tuberville or Bill Snyder, to whom he’s given up his whole playbook through game film, and when they shut all of that down, he has nothing left on the grease board.
Whatever the strategy, it worked. Once again, the Florida staff made the right tweaks and the right calls and made them at the right time. This was only the second game all season that they did not have to come back from a first half deficit, and only the fourth game where they did not trail at the half. Yet the second half trend continued: it was the seventh-straight game outscoring the opposition in the second half and in the fourth quarter, and they still have only allowed one touchdown in the second half – a cosmetic score to Vanderbilt.
The third-and-8 play on the opening possession of the second half was critical and demonstrative of the coaches’ acumen. Clowney was running free in our backfield in the first half, but on this third-and-long, he even ran a stunt and he still got no penetration. Driskel completed the pass for the first down, then went on to cap a 59-yard drive with a touchdown. The blocking assignments that checked Clowney on the first third down of the opening drive of the second half, the double hand-off touchdown off the wildcat on the same drive, the jailhouse break screen to Jordan Reed that went for 39 yards and would have been a touchdown but for a diving ankle tackle, the play selections off the wildcat and the timing and selection of the downfield passes, and every other on down the line. The Gators had 14 yards of net offense in the first half, and 59 yards of offense on their first drive of the second half. Average length of eight first half drives: 1.75 yards; average length of seven second half drives: 24 yards. That’s still a low number, but four of the six drives that were not used to end the game (i.e., the victory formation drive) ended in scores, so part of the low number was very favorable field position (an in fairness, so was the first half number).
Recognition for Durkin
Before getting too deep into the season (or the column), I want to recognize D.J. Durkin for his fine work on the staff this year. He was one of the three coaches last year whose value to the program many Gator fans questioned (myself included). But the job he has done with special teams has been amazing. Under both Spurrier and Meyer, great special teams was a trademark, but in a much different way. Spurrier would put great starting skill players at the return positions and great backup athletes on the punt block unit and was rewarded with a good number of blocked punts, as well as generally excellent returns with guys like Reidel Anthony, Quez Green, Lito Sheppard and the like taking it to the house on a regular basis. Meyer’s special teams signatures were also great returners like Brandon James and Chris Rainey, and relentless punt- and kick-blocking units. But Durkin’s squad is the total package. Andre Debose — holding the Gator record for most kickoff returns for touchdown — hasn’t even exploded yet this year, in part due to the new kickoff rules and the opposition skying punts to prevent him from getting returns. But the power of Durkin’s charges is imposing its will and physical domination in every phase of special teams — particularly in the coverage units. He has starting and star players gunning and covering kicks, working the interior and blocking a lot of kicks. The turnovers on special teams are starting to pile up, forcing more in one game Saturday than most teams do all year. But it doesn’t stop there. Durkin is also the linebackers coach, and that unit is running a close second to the offensive line for distinction of most improved group on the team. Long gone are complaints about linebackers playing slow, taking the wrong gaps and not being able to get off their blocks. They are flying to the ball, flooding the backfield on running and passing plays and applying outstanding pass coverage. Coach D.J. has done a top shelf job, made a big believer out of me and has my unmitigated apologies for ever doubting him.
Looking Ahead to The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party
Now all eyes turn to Jacksonville. Not only in the Florida and Georgia worlds, and not just in the SEC East race, but in the entire nation. Thus is the atmosphere of the Cocktail Party that arguably carries bigger shared stakes than any other in decades. The pulse of the Gator Nation is one of cautious optimism. There is some concern about the team overlooking Georgia or in other ways arriving over-confident, but I do not believe there is any chance of that. They are the No. 10 team in the BCS and were just three weeks ago in the top 5 of both polls. Nothing about this Gators team indicates the immaturity or self-aggrandizement required to take this opponent lightly. The only thing in the scope of relevance that I consider a threat is the pre-1990 history of this series that saw so many out-manned Georgia teams upset Florida when they had the SEC title in their sites. But at least a couple of things differ. Firstly, Georgia has just as much at stake, as a win for them would virtually clinch the East and put them into position to win out and reach the BCS title game. But more importantly, that otherworldly series trend has not existed in over two decades. And because of their mentality, maturation and development, as well as their physical dominance that is not subject to mental lapses, this Gators squad is one of the least vulnerable to that trap as any I have seen.
As to the game itself, with a healthier offensive line than the Gators have had the last two weeks, and finally facing a defense with holes in the secondary and not much of a pass rush (they are one of the few ranked teams — or any teams — with fewer sacks than Florida), fans may expect and perhaps coaches will be tempted to throw the ball around the Gator Bowl Saturday (yes, I still call it the Gator Bowl, and will never stop calling it that). But it would be foolish not to attempt to run it down Georgia’s throat. Vanderbilt and South Carolina came loaded to stop the Gator run, and were successful – helped in no small part by our injures along the line. But those are two strong defenses against the run. Georgia’s run defense is, to quote Ty Webb, a tremendous slouch. Georgia surrendered 206 yards on the ground to Kentucky, owner of the statistically worst rushing offense in the conference. They allowed one back to gain 72yards and another 87, to the tune of 4.0 and 7.3 yards per carry, respectfully. They opened the game running the ball down their throat to a first possession touchdown and they opened the second half the same way, leading to a field goal.
True, Kentucky did gain 160 yards rushing against Florida, but that was just methodically chewing grass on the other side of the Gators’ 40 yard line, and against a Florida defense that had prepared to face a pass-happy offense with a different quarterback. Georgia knew exactly who and what they were facing Saturday. Against UF, Kentucky turned their rush yards into zero points. Against Georgia, they tallied 24. The Bulldogs trailed the Wildcats — a team that is 1-7 and winless in five tries in the SEC — three different times Saturday. They had to come back from a deficit three different times against the team that is fighting it out with Auburn and Missouri to be the last place team in the conference. Want to pile on about how weak the Georgia schedule is? Please note that there are four winless teams (in conference games) left in the SEC, and Georgia has all of them on their slate. What’s more, the Georgia defense is not disciplined nor is it savvy. The Dawg defense was caught completely asleep Saturday by a Kentucky wide receiver screen pass tossed back to the quarterback that went for a long gain to inside the five yard line to set up a quarterback sneak touchdown. They are failing in the fundamentals and they are easily fooled by any trickery. And Brent Pease has a very big trick bag this Halloween.
And while Aaron Murray broke a few school passing marks by throwing for 427 yards, he was forced to do so because for the second-straight game, they could not run the ball. Against South Carolina, no ‘Dawg back could break 45 yards, gaining just 115 overall, while Kentucky stuffed Georgia’s run to a mere 77 yards. This was after they had run for 292 yards against Tennessee. The execution of Georgia’s offensive line has fallen apart the last two games — understandable against Carolina, but not so easily written off against Kentucky. If Florida can shut down Georgia’s running attack (and there is ample evidence to suggest they could), Georgia will be forced to pass the ball early and often. Only, Aaron Murray will not be throwing against the secondaries of Kentucky and Tennessee. He will be firing into the teeth of a defensive backfield measurably better than the Carolina secondary that held him to a 35 percent completion percentage, 109 yards through the air, sacked him twice and picked him off once. More worrisome for UGA is that Kentucky sacked him three times. Conventional wisdom says that Murray and the UGA passing game gives them a puncher’s chance…but much like when Tyler Bray faced the Gators with that same chance, the only punches being thrown could come from the Florida defense.
The most important series intangible the Gators have on their side may be the fact that Georgia simply does not win big games. Since the 2008 season, Georgia’s record against ranked teams is just 3-12. Since 2007, the ‘Dawgs have played nine games against top-10 ranked teams and won only one of them. And that came against a team from the lowly ACC, a 6-point win over a very over-rated Georgia Tech squad. Making matters worse is the way they have lost against the good teams. In the 21 games since 2007 that Georgia has played against ranked opponents, the ‘Dawgs have given up over 30 points 12 times and surrendered over 40 points on seven occasions. Nobody has ever called Coach Richt “Big Game Mark.”
Listening to Athens and Atlanta sports radio over the weekend, I can report that after losing to Carolina and needing them to lose two-straight to set up The Cocktail Party as their key back into the SEC and national race – and then getting that gift of chance to happen for them — the sentiment among the Georgia faithful is that of waiting for the other shoe to drop. On their heads. In the words of one radio man who fields calls from UGA fans all day, they do not look at their good fortune of two Carolina losses as receiving new life, but rather just a stay of execution. Georgia fans almost to a person believe that their only hope is for Florida to overlook them. The voodoo of the pre-1990 series has hardly been mentioned, thus is the result of being about 30 years removed from the last time that spirit made the trip to Jacksonville. Most of the energy and movement behind enemy lines the last two weeks has been Georgia fans loading up their Dog Vent, Facebook and Twitter cannons with the strongest possible pleas (all clean as a Sunday school program, to be sure) to fire Mark Richt in the wake of the foregone conclusion that is to them a big loss to the Gators. Seems Gator fans are the only people in the country who think Georgia can win this game.
One of the main sources of ammunition for the Georgia cannons is the question of how Richt can keep signing top-5 and top-10 recruiting classes and never come up with a top-10 or top-5 finish in the polls. The answer to that question is simple, though I’ve yet to hear or read any Georgia-concerned pundit provide it. The problem they have is the significant cognitive dissonance between Mark Richt’s recruiting style and the coaching style required to win big games consistently, to finish in the top 10 and to win championships. Richt pursues recruits like he is courting a girl far out of his league for the senior prom. He promises them the world, he gives them a soft, warm façade that welcomes them into a safe place where everyone gets a participation ribbon and no matter what they do, Coach Richt will be there to give them a hug and make them feel all better. Anyone who follows recruiting knows exactly the approach he takes and exactly the relationship it establishes with the players that sign. And one simply cannot coach with the discipline, the tough love, the accepted anger and the simple rigid backbone required to forge a strong, tough championship program or team when you create your coach-player relationships as co-dependent support groups. You can never approach the level of competition of the programs built by Muschamp, Saban, Miles and Spurrier by trying to be every player’s best friend. And you can’t woo a girl to prom under the pretense of being the Ned Flanders of Athens and then expect her to dance with you like you’re Vincent Vega.
Ends and Odds
* I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team — certainly not a Gators team — that has found so many different ways to win each week. The Gators’ initial first down was earned with 5:02 left in the first half, and only had 183 total yards from scrimmage, with no defensive or special teams touchdowns, and they beat the No. 7 team in the country by 33 points. They just won their third-straight game without throwing for more than 100 yards (and two of the wins were against Top-10 teams). It has become a team that can’t lose because it won’t lose.
*The referees not only took 7 points away from Florida and gave USC 6 points — as well as take the initial steam out of Florida’s sails and give SC an opportunity to catch their breath and gain some momentum – but they also took possibly the two best plays of the game and made them disappear. The one-handed catch by Hines for a touchdown was a great throw and a scintillating and breath-taking amazing catch. And Jelani Jenkins’ leaping interception was not only an athletic beauty; it was done with a big bulky cast on his arm.
*How must South Carolina feel right now? Last week, they were essentially dominated by LSU but somehow managed to hang in there and make the final score close. Saturday they were statistically even with Florida and were blown out of the stadium. Going into this game, the mantra was ‘If they don’t win it this year, when will they?’ After this game, the mantra is, ‘If Spurrier doesn’t retire this year, when will he?’
*Being obscured by so many other worthy items of the weekend is the fact that a significant reason we won was our red zone effectiveness. Yet another coaching focus in the off-week pays off, as Muschamp identified red zone inefficiency against Vandy as a problem that needed immediate fixing. And Florida was so effective in the red zone Saturday because they completely crossed up South Carolina by throwing the ball. Driskel had 4 TD passes, and they were of 1, 3, 6 and 13 yards. It was a brilliant tactical decision when attacking a dominating defense expecting a Gillislee interior run every time. Establish tendencies and break them at the most opportune and unexpected time. This is our clever coaching staff. Drink it in.
Well that’s the (very, very, very) long and the (not so) short of it after knocking off South Carolina in amazing fashion. Here’s looking forward to a great Cocktail Party for the Gators this Saturday. As long as Florida plays its game the way it has done for seven Saturdays thus far, Gator Nation has a lot to look forward to. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.