We’re (Half-Way) back!
We leave the premature “We’re BACK!” chants to the two other in-state programs who have not been nationally relevant since ancient times. But we Gators we should absolutely embrace the level to which we have returned. We are a good football team again, and on the cusp of being a very good team. Most importantly, the Gators are progressing on the path to greatness at a much faster clip than most expected.
What was expected at this point in Year 2 was that we’d struggle to win these last two games and possibly lose them, but look better in doing so than we have the last two years: It was the way in which we were expected to struggle that was the key. We were expected to struggle because we were going to be dragging around the same baggage from the last two years, trying to improve piecemeal and leave the baggage behind, one item of carry-on luggage at a time:
*Inept offensive line
*Weak running game
*Non-existent passing game
*Poor ball security
*Lack of big plays on offense & defense
*Defense that could not force turnovers
*Penalty-prone, lack of discipline
*Low energy and focus
*Poor physical & mental conditioning
As it turns out, none of these things were big factors the last two weeks. Or at least all of them were very strongly put down or beat down. The reason we “struggled” to win the two games was that the two opponents were a lot better than expected and played very tough. Though in the end we proved superior, the ‘Plan to Win’ included pretty conservative blueprints on both sides of the ball to limit the risk factors of a young and confidence-fragile team. So, as the old adage goes, it’s not always the way you win or lose; it’s how you win or lose that matters. For this team and program, it’s how we struggle and how we improve that are key to a lot of happy and hopeful Gators fans right now.
ARG! Our defense is terrib…Oh wait, our defense is awesome
Despite the copious amounts of hair that was pulled out of the heads of Gators fans in the first half, the defensive plan was very sound again this week. After seeing Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray destroy secondaries for huge deep plays for two weeks, the plan was to limit those big plays, keep the receivers in front of the defensive backs, challenge every pass we can and tackle them when they catch the ball. With our pressure package and plan up front, the coaches knew that the more plays we forced them to make to move downfield, the more chances we’d have to get a sack, force a fumble or grab an interception. Prevent the home run ball, contain the YAC – yards after catch – and do your damage when we can get pressure or when they break down or make a mistake. Some fans of aggressive defense (and those who just don’t like to see one of our top rivals slicing up the field with their passing attack) may have balked at this approach, but we need to keep in mind that the Gators’ secondary is still young and in aggregate not overly experienced. Lest we forget, that was an NFL quarterback throwing to NFL receivers Saturday. It was the smart play. We saw that proven, especially in the second half, when our game plan was paid off in full. Coverage and pressure caused Bray to loft several balls, even when not being pressured. The defense caused a lot of confusion and uncertainty; they got in Bray’s head, into the heads of the receivers and it ultimately caught up to them.
As for why the defense had better results in the second half, much as it did last week, the staff didn’t make any major changes, just a coverage tweak and some different pressures (but the latter change throughout the game by design – not as an adjustment, per se). The difference in the outcomes on defense was that depth and conditioning took over. Those are two terms that have not been associated with this program for the last two years except for sarcastic levity. Even when we were not causing errors, our depth, conditioning and our tough, physical play (which is only possible in the second half if you are very well conditioned) created unforced errors on the UT side, in the form of bad throws and dropped passes. The Gators had worn the Vols down physically and mentally by the time the fourth quarter began and they simply had very little left to even catch a perfect pass in wide open space.
One of the keys to this week’s victory was response time. Time and again, bad things happened Saturday for the Gators that could have spelled a terrible outcome and a landslide of Vols momentum. So many things that could have ultimately led to Tyler Bray leading the Vols band in “Rocky Top” as the Gators faithful dodged an assault of insults and soda cups on their way out of the stadium, simply didn’t. It is because of this team’s new-found resiliency in the face of adversity, where over the last two years they would have crumbled (and did).
It was evident from the very start of the game. The very first offensive play of the game was a Vols carry that went for 25 yards, putting them in striking distance of field goal range already. Going in, Florida knew its best and perhaps only path to victory was to take away the run and make the Vols one-dimensional and then pressure their way to turnovers. If the Vols’ running game was going to gash them like that, there was no chance at victory for the good guys. But they came out and stuffed the next run for no gain, held them to a short five-yard completion and forced an incomplete pass and a punt. On UT’s third possession, Bray uncorked his first big downfield completion of 18 yards to midfield, again threatening to move into field goal range. But Florida stuffed the next play for no gain and forced another five-yard completion, an incomplete and a punt.
This trend continued throughout the game until the first big mistake by the Gators. Trailing 20-13 in the third quarter, facing a fourth down on the Gators’ own 42 after being forced backwards by a penalty and another flag that was declined, desperately needing a shot of momentum and confidence, Champ pulled the fake punt trigger as he did last week. However, this time there was a whiffed block and we were stuffed. Down seven on the road in the third quarter with all the momentum already with Tennessee, we gave them the ball on our own 47. First play response? Sack! Two short passes later, punt. Trey Burton took the next play from scrimmage 80 yards for the tying touchdown and the Gators never looked back.
That’s how good teams become great. When they get hit (or hit themselves), they get up and hit back harder. And they do it very quickly. Response time.
Keeping with the conditioning theme, the Gators have outscored their opponents 50-13 in the second half this year, and 27-0 in the fourth quarter. You don’t lose many football games when you do that. However, to temper those stats, recall that last year through four games, UF had outscored the competition 65-16 in the second half, 20-10 in the fourth quarter and only let one team – UT – score after halftime. Of course, in the six SEC games following that run, the Gators were outscored 79-29 in the second half and 62-12 in the fourth quarter, and only outscored one team (Carolina) in the second half (9-3; unfortunately the Gators were outscored 14-3 in the first half).
But there are a few things in UF’s favor when we look at those numbers. Firstly, the first four opponents last year were all pretty bad teams: FAU, UAB, and very bad Tennessee and Kentucky squads. The first three opponents this year have been pretty good: much-improved UT and A&M squads and a strong MAC team in Bowling Green. Another positive way to look at it, level of competition aside, is that after that daunting SEC run last season (in which UF essentially had no healthy quarterback or running back), they have played six games against fair to pretty good competition – Furman, FSU and Ohio State to end the year, plus the first three from this year – and in the last six games, Florida has outscored the opposition 94-37 in the second half, 54-14 in the fourth quarter, and has not been outscored by a single team in the second half or the fourth quarter (and only Bowling Green outscored them in the third, just 7-3). This shows us that not only is there a great new strength and conditioning coach making his impact on the program, but that the staff and team were already beginning to address quality of play and mental toughness in the second half before last year ended.
The way Driskel, Burton, Hammond, et al, were throwing defenders to the ground and running through them, and the way that Gillislee carried the pile a few times, despite a gimpy nether region – did that remind anyone of the way that Alabama and LSU threw our guys around the last two years? Or better yet, the way Florida players used to throw around SEC defenders before our free fall in 2010? Credit Dillman for the strength and conditioning, and credit Champ and Pease for instilling a defensive player’s mentality of dishing out punishment with every hit and refusing to go down. Florida is not back to its pre-2010 physical strength and toughness yet, but they have clearly separated themselves from the SEC pack and are closer to the current Bama-LSU level than the A&M-Tennessee level. We will see later in the year if they have improved to or beyond the SC-UGA level, which will bode extremely well for 2013, marking the return to physically dominating play in Orange and Blue.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Introducing…
The announcers made reference to America watching Jeff Driskel growing up Saturday against the Vols. But I tend to think that already occurred in the six months prior to the season opener. As Champ said after the A&M game, Driskel isn’t showing him anything new – he already knew it going in. Jeff already did his growing up. No, Saturday’s game in Neyland Stadium was an introduction. If he continues to improve, it will be remembered as the game that announced, “College football, may I introduce to you the next great Gator quarterback: Jeff Driskel.”
That sound you heard in the second half Saturday was the rest of the SEC’s fans groaning like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when his dad’s lug nuts went flying into the night air: “Ooooooh fuuuuudge….” Only they didn’t say, “Fudge.” They said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word! Because it became clear as the game wore on that Florida has found its new quarterback, and he is going to be a force. One of the main keys to UF returning to dominance is a functioning, then a powerful offense. As long as the Gators had nobody reliable at quarterback (see: the last two years, where Florida quarterbacks throwing the ball were more apt to shoot their eye out than shoot for touchdowns), that wasn’t going to happen. Now they do. The play that really nailed it home for anyone watching was the touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Reed. On second-and-eight, standing on the 35, with two defenders rushing into his face about to crush him, off his back foot he flicks his wrist and throws a frozen rope to the marker, hitting a well-covered tight end in a spot where only he could catch it – but still a very catchable ball – putting the Gators up by seven with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Game effectively done. Gator-haters the world over effectively floundering in dread, thinking, “Here we go again.”
When another Gators quarterback made his starting debut in 1993, in another nationally televised SEC East showdown, legendary announcer Keith Jackson – after watching yet another downfield completion convert yet another third down – said, “I’m going to spell it for you: W-U-E-R-F-F-E-L.” Then to paraphrase, he said fans better learn it because they’re going to be hearing an awful lot about him over the next four years. Coincidentally, the foe that day was also a nationally-ranked Tennessee Vols team. I’m going to spell it for you: D-R-I-S-K-E-L.
I place this after the Driskel introduction section because of the importance of what Derek Dooley is to UT, and the fact that he didn’t give me any sense of dread when he took the job like Driskel should be giving the rest of the SEC fans right now. When you watch Jeff now, you get the feeling you are watching something special; when he signed with Florida, you just got that feeling. When Dooley replaced SOM (Son Of Monte), I didn’t get that feeling. Even though Vince Dooley is a figure whose teams drove the season-spoiling dagger into the hearts of Gator seasons of old, the hiring of SOV (Son Of Vince) did not phase me.
First off, I knew that it was Erik Russell and Florida’s inability to get out of its own way that were responsible for Vince the Prince’s run of success against the Gators. But mostly I knew what SOV was: he was Phil Fulmer – but instead of inheriting a very strong Johnny Majors program, he inherited a Kiffin-abandoned dumpster fire. I had no doubt he’d build the program back up to at least near Fulmer level, but I do not fear that in the least. Fulmer brought the program to its highest peak, its glory days, and it still could rarely beat Florida and only won one national title. I said in the ‘90s that Tennessee was riding a Peyton Manning-aided recruiting boom mid-decade, which pushed them far above the sustainable level of that program – and as soon as his wave of recruiting classes cycled out, they’d be back to second-tier in the East with the dogs of Georgia. And that’s exactly what happened. Dooley I believe will return them to that level, but no higher. He’s just not a special coaching talent – more like a Richt – and Tennessee simply doesn’t have the advantages factored in like Florida (or Alabama or LSU) to lift it to the elite for the long term. Sure, they’ll rise up now and again and win an SEC title and maybe even a national crown – which is good for the SEC – but only as a special, occasional fluke.
It’s not always the case, of course with new hires. Given his history, Saban was sort of an unknown – nobody knew if he’d be the over-achiever he was at Michigan State, the lightning-in-a-bottle guy at LSU or the laughing stock he was with the Dolphins. I was very concerned when Greg Schiano was contemplating a move to Miami. Watching the Bucs play in the first two weeks like a whole new franchise, I know I was right to worry. Luckily the Golden Age will be nothing of the sort in Coral Gables.
Pride cometh before a fall
It’s no secret that Tyler Bray made some cocky comments about beating the Gators secondary in the passing game in the week leading up to the K-town showdown. Gators fans were nonplussed by the remarks since they remember how Florida harassed him all day last year, picked off two of his passes and dropping four other passes that should have been interceptions. Well this year, the Gators defense did that stat line one better, picking off two of his passes and dropping five balls that should have been interceptions. In addition to Matt Elam and Lerentee McCray each grabbing a Bray offering, Loucheiz Purifoy dropped two, “Pop” Saunders and Elam each dropped one, and Marcus Roberson intercepted a pass just a foot out of bounds. Had Bray thrown a better ball, it would have been pick No. 3. In fact, Bray threw eight total interception balls Saturday, when you include the pass that Derek Dooley snared on his own sidelines. He was so happy to have someone on his own team finally catch a pass in the second half, that he jubilantly spiked the ball.
Checking for Accuracy
For those scoring at home, we at Gator Country take pride in being accurate not only in reporting but in projections. So to hold myself accountable for my own projections, I’ll revisit the three I made in last week’s Postulations:
1) “…things to watch for next week when the Gators visit Knoxville: Fast Start … look for both (offense and defense) to have a good shot at establishing early this week.”
Check. Defense got the Gators off to a fast start by picking off Bray on his second possession, setting up the offense with a nice return. The offense responded in kind by punching it into the end zone in just three plays.
2) “The defense will finally have a decent opportunity to get sacks and turnovers (against UT) … 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 BG and A&M.”
Check. Countless pressures, one sack, two interceptions and five more interceptions either dropped or caught out of bounds. Those totals equaled the number of sacks against Bray in the first two games combined and were his first interceptions thrown on the season.
3) “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.”
Check. Two touchdowns, including the game’s first to set the tone for the Gators’ big road win, and the second of course, the 80-yard burst that tied the score and gave Florida all the momentum it needed to cruise to victory.
That is what I’ll name this ‘odds & ends’ segment, the tail on the end of the Gator, if you will. Also because I really miss Joe’s Deli!
*Lerentee McCray is causing major problems for offenses coming off the edge, making plays, creating pressure and as Fletch would say, drawing the fouls. After three years of showing glimpses of promise, he is showing what a big upside he always had. Amazing what a little coaching and scheme stability can do for a player’s development. Dante Fowler is also steadily improving his play there, making a couple strong plays in run defense, which at this early stage of his development is just gravy. The kid has some very advanced instincts and nose for the ball for a true freshman. When RoPo gets back next year, those two are going to make a fearsome rotation at Buck.
*Deja Belue: Anyone else have flashbacks to the 2010 Georgia game when Trey Burton ripped off that 80-yard TD run? The similarities in the play as well as the game situation and outcome are eerie.
* The two-minute offense at the end of the half was impressive, particularly on Drikel’s part. Jeff made a great dump-off play to Hines; checked down to the second or third receiver on second down and 10 to convert a first down; his long run was very smart, especially staying in bounds for extra yards; eluding the rush and throwing that impressive sideline dart on the run to Patton – following Patton’s excellent end-around; then Gillie so close to scoring the touchdown. In the future, in big games, look for that drive to end a little differently, because:
*Look for the hand-offs on third- and fourth-and-short to pay off in two ways. For starters, the team will eventually be able to get that tough yard with smash mouth football. That will come eventually. I expect much sooner to see the second payoff: after lulling the competition to sleep with that short-yardage play for four games, against LSU they are going to show draw and run something either wide – like the long pitch we did out of the formation in the fourth quarter against A&M – or downfield. I’m thinking releasing Reed or another tight end from the tight formation and having Driskel zip it to him and let him lead a foot race to the end zone.
*Another set-up/payoff I expect to see, again probably against LSU if the right opportunity comes up, is to see Trey Burton throw in the flat or even downfield out of the wildcat. We’ve used him in the wildcat extensively for three years now, under two head coaches and three offensive coordinators and he’s only thrown the ball out of that formation once. Once. And it was completed. If ever we had a play that has lulled the opposition to sleep and is ripe to run a new wrinkle and catch the defense off-guard, this is it.
*Some folks trying to downplay the Gators’ improvement can point to all the help Tennessee gave us with the penalties and drops, but the UF effort was still very impressive because they equaled UT’s gift exchange in some ways. The game should have been much more in the Gators’ favor. The Vols’ second score required a fourth-and-10 conversion near midfield; we had to settle on field goals twice inside the 10 yard line; and Jeff’s game-sealing sideline dance was a literal inch away from putting another seven on the board. Yes, the Vols did shoot themselves in the foot a bit, but had Florida not done the same, the final score could very easily have been 52-13.
Those are my thoughts on Game 3. This Saturday’s game should be a great welcome home for the team and I expect Gators fans to be out in force and really explode – “BOOM” if you will – when the team takes the field, in appreciation for the extraordinary efforts the players and staff put forth those two grueling weeks on the road. Until then remember that each day is a gift – that’s why they call it the present.