The defense bends but it doesn’t break often and that’s a prime reason why the Florida Gators (second ranked AP, third coaches) are 6-0 as they start taking aim at the Auburn Tigers, whom they face on the road Saturday at 7:45 EDT (ESPN). The Gators are the second toughest team in the nation to run against and in terms of pass efficiency defense, Florida ranks fifth.
A great defensive effort will be critical to Florida’s chances to beat the once-beaten Tigers Saturday evening. Auburn is best known as a running team that likes to pound the ball with tailback Kenny Irons, but Coach Urban Meyer knows the Gators better be ready to stop a balanced attack directed by Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges.
“I met him,” said Meyer. “He’s friends with Coach Addazio. They worked together at Indiana. I met him this summer and Steve’s always talked highly of him. I’ve just watched them from afar last year. They’re struggling a little this year but last year they were a machine up and down the field. I think he calls a great game with his play action passing mixed in with his running. He does a great job.”
The running game is the staple of the Auburn attack and it is most effective when the Tigers can spring Irons, whom Meyer says is the “premier back in the SEC.” But, what makes the running game so effective is the way that Borges balances things out. Meyer says it helps that Borges has great personnel, too.
“He’s got very good players,” said Meyer. “He was also at Indiana and he wasn’t that hard to defend. That’s not a shot. That’s reality. I think the fact he has excellent players … they’ve recruited very well at Auburn. I made that comment about LSU. I’m not sure where Auburn was ranked in recruiting but they should have been ranked way up there.”
The Tigers have one of the best wide receivers in the SEC in Courtney Taylor and junior quarterback Brandon Cox may not have the biggest arm in the league but he’s accurate and knows how to win games.
“He [Cox] is a clutch guy,” said Meyer, who added that Cox finds a way to get the ball where he needs it to go in tough situations.
Stopping Taylor and stopping the run with Irons will be the challenge of the Florida defense this week. The Gators have been highly effective against the run, giving up just 56.8 yards per game and only 2.3 yards per carry. In pass efficiency defense, the Gators are second in the SEC to LSU and fifth in the nation, having allowed just four touchdown passes while picking off 11. The Gators intercepted LSU’s JaMarcus Russell, who came into last Saturday’s game with only one interception, three times.
Meyer says that the key to Florida’s success on defense is directly related to how well the front seven are playing. When the Gators are getting maximum effort and production from the front seven, they are formidable and difficult to score on. The Gators rank second nationally in scoring defense, having given up only 57 points in six games.
Because the front seven plays so well, the Gators can play more zone coverage and that opens the door for turnovers.
“Last year we were primarily a man team,” said Meyer. “It’s actually harder to intercept a pass in man coverage because you’re covering the guy … that’s where you get the pass interference. Zone coverage [teams] are the teams that usually lead the league and lead the country in interceptions. We’re mixing in some nice zone coverage this year, much more than last year.”
The ability of Florida’s front seven to neutralize running games without help from the safeties or too much blitzing allows the Gators to play zone more often and Meyer likes having that flexibility.
“The whole idea of playing man coverage is that you have to load the box to stop the run,” he said. “We’re a stop the run defense. That’s what we are. You do that with some great personnel which we happen to have at this point when everybody is back and you don’t have to play so much man coverage.”
Playing zone has also worked to Florida’s advantage against teams like Tennessee, Alabama and LSU which were loaded up with several future NFL wide receivers. Meyer said that it is a difficult task to ask corners to play man coverage 50 or more plays in a game.
“Some of the receivers we faced including the one we have to face this week — they have a really good receiver this week [Taylor] … to ask a kid to go cover the receivers that we’ve faced the last three or four weeks on a consistent basis for 50 plays man to man … people don’t do that to us either. That’s hard to do.”
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Meyer said that freshman wide receiver Percy Harvin had a good practice and that senior tailback DeShawn Wynn got in some work at practice on a Tuesday when not everything went quite like Meyer wanted.
“We didn’t practice real well today because we had some new stuff in,” said Meyer. “We have to practice better tomorrow.”
Harvin, slowed down the last three weeks because of a high ankle sprain, looked good on Tuesday according to Meyer, who said it’s critical to get the fast, elusive freshman back fully into the game plan.
Meyer said that Wynn, who missed the LSU game with a knee injury, “jogged around and did some things.”
Meyer says that trainers are telling him that Wynn should be good to practice on Wednesday.
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Senior defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, who missed two straight games prior to last Saturday’s game because of a suspension for a failed drug test, continues to arrive at practice early but he also leaves early. Meyer said Thomas is not in his doghouse but has things he has to take care of.
“He has some stuff he has to do for himself,” said Meyer. “He’s practicing and he has some obligations in the evening. That’s why he came in early and he leaves early.”