By Alex Gray
In some rare cases, just one play in a ball game can serve as a microcosm for an entire football program’s history. For the University of Kentucky, no one play sums up what has been a miserable football existence in the Southeastern Conference more than the “Bluegrass Miracle” in November of 2003. On that fateful day, the Wildcats had taken in improbable 30-27 lead over the visiting 14th-ranked LSU Tigers with just seconds remaining. The Wildcats’ players were so sure of a victory that they doused then-coach Guy Morriss with the celebratory Gatorade shower just as LSU would attempt a last-ditch Hail Mary pass from their own 25 yard line.
What ensued is now a play that lives forever in college football lore—and an important lesson on premature celebration—as LSU’s Devery Henderson caught the ball, tipped by Kentucky defenders, and raced into the end zone where a swarm of victory-starved Wildcats fans were prepared to rush onto the Commonwealth Stadium grass. Two current Gators coaches experienced two very different levels of emotion as the clock ticked down to zero in Lexington. The two coaches had spent that entire week scheming against one another, as current Gators Head Coach Will Muschamp was LSU’s defensive coordinator at the time, and Gators Offensive Coordinator Brent Pease held his same, current title with the Wildcats that November afternoon.
While that game will have no bearing on the Gators’ matchup with the ‘Cats this weekend in Gainesville, perhaps no one knows what to expect out of Kentucky more than Pease, who spent two years with the SEC East’s favorite perennial cellar-dweller. Kentucky has solidified their place as their home state’s third-best team after suffering two early season losses against Louisville and Western Kentucky. In contrast, Pease has sparked life back into the Florida offense that is coming off one of its best performances in years, and has the Gators rolling into their first home game in two weeks with a confidence that hasn’t been seen from this program since perhaps 2009. On Tuesday, Pease along with starting safety Josh Evans, and offensive lineman Kyle Koehne—who is coming off a strong performance against Tennessee after replacing an injured Chaz Green—talked about how the Gators can avoid a letdown this weekend in The Swamp.
A second–half team
After two weeks of overcoming second-half deficits, and downright dominating the third and fourth quarters against Texas A&M and Tennessee, the 2012 edition of the Gators have understandably been labeled a second-half team. Whether that is really true probably remains to be seen, but it is no doubt an encouraging sign to see such a relatively young team take ownership of the most critical points of the game in tough and unfriendly environments. “All the kids, being in that environment for two weeks in a row, they haven’t really gotten shaken in any way and handled things,” said Pease on Tuesday. A lot of it is how we train out there. We work with noise. I think they’re very confident with the shape that they’re in, knowing that they can compete because I think they believe in their talents. I’m really—with the whole team, and on offense in particular, the kids are kinda eager to see what we’re going to do to make some adjustments or what we’ve got to go with or what we’ve got to eliminate. I think it’s kinda just narrowing things down and settling in on some things. I was happy with our plan and what we had.” Safety Josh Evans said that staying consistent has been the key for this Gators squad: “Thinking positive and getting on the players, the locking and focus and I think last year that’s what killed us. The lack of focus and sometimes being down kind of hurt us. We’ve just been a better team the second half this year.”
Pease said that the key to the Gators’ second half success hasn’t been the result of any major adjustments in the locker room, but rather eliminating what hasn’t been working for them. “There’s not a lot of adjustments. There’s some minor things, and really when you take the game plan, you kind of eliminate some things that haven’t worked and ‘let’s get away from this, here’s what they’re stopping us on.’ We’ve got to make our adjustments to how we’re going to attack them.”
Gators Stepping Up
Anyone who has been on Gators’ message board over the past couple of seasons knows the frustrations that fans have felt over a perceived lack of playmakers. While Florida still may not have a Percy Harvin-type on the roster—a player who forces you to hold your breath once he gets the ball—the Gators have seen an increased number of explosive plays early on this season and Pease was not short on praise for his seemingly newfound offensive threats. “Omarius still fits into the scheme in a big way. Frankie stepped up. You’ve seen Quinton Dunbar make some catches and be productive. He’s has to be accounted for …Trey is still, as we’ve said before, he’s a guy that can line up at a lot of positions. I mean, you saw him catch the wheel. You saw him line up at quarterback and run it. So where is he? You’ve got to find out where he’s at. Is he in the game? Because that changes calls, you don’t know how. Sometimes him being in all the spots, it forces them into a very basic defense at times.” Pease also called Solomon Patton’s offensive contributions this season “huge” and was asked how they have been able to execute the jet-sweep with Patton that has gotten the Gators critical first downs in consecutive weeks. “I mean, it’s just blocking and, you know, the look and some communication. There’s a lot of things off of it. He’s done a good job of when he gets it, hitting the edge. And he’s done a good job of, you know, for us it’s more causing lateral movement. We cause some lateral movement; it helps the linemen up front with the blocking scheme for them. Of course, getting him out in space as long as the guys on the edge will block for him, which they’ve done a good job of, so he’s been very productive with the play.”
Pease also spoke highly of fullback Hunter Joyer, who Pease compared to a legend who just happened to play Joyer’s position in his hometown. “Well, I think one he’s (Joyer) really improved on his blocking. He’s developed a form of physicality that we need, because it is a thankless job sometimes. But he brings a threat that – he can catch some passes for us. Occasionally, he’s going to have the ball in his hands. He never complains about what the situation is. He’s smart; he understands all the movement of everything. He just brings that hard work ethic and I guess I’d kind of relate it to a Mike Alstott when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s just the type of guy like that that works and never complains and goes out and he doesn’t get a lot of credit all the time because he doesn’t have rushing yards and touchdowns and all that. But, if it wasn’t for him, our plays wouldn’t break the way they do.”
The Trey Burton of the Offensive Line?
Offensive Lineman Kyle Koehne has found it tough to permanently break into the Gators’ starting lineup full-time, but it seems that every time his number has been called, he has stepped up for the team. Saturday against Tennessee was no exception as Koehne stepped in for an injured Chaz Green on short notice. Koehne says he found out over the course of the week, as Green began to take less and less reps that he would probably be getting the starting nod in Knoxville. Despite the short notice, Koehne says he was excited for the opportunity. “It felt great. It’s definitely a privilege for me, especially to play on such a big stage.”
Florida Junior Trey Burton came to Florida as a quarterback, but soon after Will Muschamp’s arrival, he was moved to a different position. As to what position, well that is still somewhat of a mystery to Gators fans. Burton is listed as a running back on Florida’s roster, but the talented athlete has lined up everywhere on the Florida offense during Muschamp’s tenure, playing tight end and receiver in addition to lining up in the backfield as a wildcat quarterback. As for Koehne, the 6-foot-5 Indianapolis native has found himself playing at each position on Florida’s offensive line at some point during his brief career as a Gator. On Tuesday, he was asked how it felt to be the “Trey Burton” of the o-line. “Yeah definitely, he has to play multiple positions and I play multiple positions so that’s definitely, that’s why you just don’t want to learn the offense by your position, you want to learn the offense as a whole.” As for a reason as to why Koehne has been successful so far this season, he mentioned his position coach as a big reason. “Coach Davis has been a great coach. We all love him, the whole o-line, everybody loves Coach Davis and he’s a great coach. A big thing is that we take it one day at a time, one practice at a time and we learn from our mistakes every day, and so that’s contributed a lot to our development.” Perhaps the only complaint for the Florida offense so far this season has been its lack of success in short yardage situations. According to Koehne, the offense has been surprised at their troubles and is aiming to fix it. “Yeah, I am a little surprised. But then it’s just small stuff that we need to work on as a team as a full line. We’ll have good blocks here and there but we need to have all good blocks together, especially on the short yardage situations, because those are really big situations.”
Keeping The Streak Alive
The Gators’ string of 25 consecutive victories over the Wildcats may not be that surprising looking at the talent both programs have fielded over that span. However, the Gators are not looking at the overall picture and are rather focused on beating just another conference opponent on Saturday. Said Evans: “It’s a new year and anything’s capable of happening in the SEC. We’re taking it step by step. We don’t look at their bad plays and look at what they need to work on. We look at what we need to work on and what we can do better and how we can win this game.” Evans said the Gators will lean on experience to avoid looking ahead to their looming home showdown with LSU in two weeks. “Look at last year. We kind of looked past Furman and they came out a great team in the first half. But that’s something we’ve definitely been talking about, too. Staying focused. We’re not taking Kentucky light. They’re another SEC opponent and we’ve got to get past them to even think forward. It’s not about LSU. It’s about Kentucky this week and we’re taking it game by game. Of course, getting in our playbook for them, too, as well, but right now it’s about Kentucky.”
Pease said the Gators’ streak was never talked about when he was at Kentucky, but he remembers the Florida teams they lined up against pretty well. “Coach Spurrier was here and the kids that they had at that time, I remember the three receivers and (Troupe) at tight end, Caldwell and Taylor Jacobs and Reche Caldwell. They had some very talented, talented kids. I know when I was at Kentucky our kids had to go out and compete, and they did. We played well and we got beat in the end. I think Ratliff intercepted a ball and took one back. We knew at that time we had to be on our game. We couldn’t have a lot of mistakes. We had to keep the game close.
Kyle Koehne says it will be nice to get back in front of the home faithful for a while in an environment that the team is comfortable in. “It’ll definitely be nice playing at home, playing in the Swamp his a huge advantage, but yeah, I mean I think it was great training playing in such big stadiums and with such noise. It helps our communication, a bunch of things and I think it’ll just give us more of an advantage when we play at home.” When the Gators opened the season against Bowling Green, it was hard not to notice the abundance of empty seats around The Swamp. For the first time in recent memory, Florida has had to resort to advertising to convince fans to show up to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. With a team that appears to be on the upswing, many are hoping that once-skeptical Gators fans will be putting their butts back into the seats in The Swamp. When asked if he’d like to see a sell-out on Saturday Koehne said: “I’d love to see a sellout. Why not?”
Speaking of the Real Trey Burton
It was two years ago in the very game that Florida will be playing this weekend, that Burton initially had his coming out party to Gators fans. Burton scored a Gators-record six touchdowns against the Wildcats as a freshman, sparking a cult-following for the Gators’ utility man. Coach Pease said on Tuesday that he hasn’t seen the game, but Burton hasn’t failed to mention his record setting performance to the new Gators offensive coordinator. Said Pease: “Six touchdowns, yeah I’ve heard about it. He informs me every day.”