Florida’s defensive game plan for Saturday’s game with the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville is going to be pretty simple. Coach Urban Meyer knows that any game plan to defend the Commodores begins and ends with taking quarterback Chris Nickson and wide receiver Earl Bennett out of their normal game.
Nickson is a mobile third-year sophomore who tore up Duke last week with 250 passing yards and two touchdowns to go with 150 rushing yards and three touchdowns. On the season, Nickson has completed 100 passes for 1,244 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s added 564 rushing yards (5.3 yards per carry) and seven more scores.
Bennett, who caught 77 passes last season as a true freshman, has 54 receptions this season for 753 yards and four touchdowns. Against Duke last week he had nine catches for 184 yards, including a 77-yarder for a touchdown. In his brief Vanderbilt career, Bennett has 131 catches for 1,629 yards. He has 10 career 10-catch games and five 100-yard games in his career.
Problem number one for the Gators is stopping Nickson, perhaps the most mobile quarterback the Gators have faced this season. His ability to turn a bad play into a big gain has Meyer’s attention. The Gator coach knows it’s a numbers game since the defense has to account for the quarterback as a runner on every play.
“You can’t defend it, there are not enough gaps,” said Meyer. “They are plus one on you and the best way to do that is defeat the blocker, but if everybody makes their block you have to pull your safety out of center field.”
To illustrate what happens when the safety becomes too concerned with the quarterback as a runner, Meyer brought up a play the Gators used against LSU when Tim Tebow faked a run into the line then pulled up to throw and hit a wide open receiver for a touchdown.
“I think the thing you look at is LSU’s defense,” he said. “I think they are number one in the country. I haven’t checked but they were. Well, we had a guy running without a guy within 35 yards of him. That guy’s name was Louis Murphy so that kind of tells you what happens by having the threat of that [running quarterback]. That’s awfully hard on the defense.”
Meyer said the defense has to remain disciplined and it has to do a few different things to contain the quarterback.
“When you drop into pass coverage we’re either going to spy someone or we have to do twists inside but you can’t straight pass rush a guy like that,” he said.
Bennett caught 49 passes in Vanderbilt’s last four games last year including six for 75 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators.
“Number 10 [Bennett] is going to be one of the first players picked in the draft in a few years,” said Meyer.
While Nickson and Bennett hold the keys to the Vanderbilt attack — “We have to stop number 10 and the quarterback,” said Meyer — the Commodores have other weapons. Meyer sees a team in Vandy that has enough talent and good coaching to merit far more respect than they are being given.
“They are right in the middle of the pack in the SEC,” said Meyer. “I think they are more talented than people give them credit for. They have a bunch of players that could play here in a minute. I think they are one of those programs that probably does not have a great reputation but on film they are very well coached and they have some very good players.”
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In day two of the kicking competition between Eric Nappy, Chris Hetland and Jonathon Phillips, Meyer said that Hetland still has a hold on his job.
“He’s not beat out yet,” said Meyer. “We’re going to go one more day tomorrow and then it’s decision time.”
Asked if he’s pulling for Hetland, who is in a 1-7 slump kicking field goals, Meyer said, “Darn right I am. I pull for a lot of players. I pull for Nappy. He’s a senior. I pull for guys vested in the program and both those guys are as vested as anybody on the team. Good people, too.”
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Meyer looks for tailback DeShawn Wynn to have more of an impact on Saturday’s game than last week when it wasn’t until the fourth quarter when he got some carries. Vandy’s defense is ranked number 95 against the run in the NCAA so having the senior tailback ready to pound the ball between the tackles is important.
“I don’t want to say he’s full speed yet but he’s pretty close,” said Meyer, who said the Gators have “gone backwards a little bit” in the running game since Wynn sprained his knee against Alabama.
“We have to get better in the running game,” Meyer said. “I think we had 150 yards [against Georgia] and it was all by receivers and quarterbacks running but it’s not the traditional run game. I would categorize it as a work in progress and we have to get continuity at that position.”
Meyer said he thought the Gators had the tailback problem solved after Wynn ran for 100 yards two consecutive games.
“When Deshawn went 100 yards about three weeks ago we went in the office and thought we’re all set at the running back position,” Meyer said. “Then Kestahn Moore has had a nagging injury and then he [Wynn] sprained his knee.”
Without Wynn and Moore to run between the tackles, the Gators pretty much stuck to wide receivers running sweeps and Tim Tebow running quarterback blast plays from the shotgun. Meyer said the problems in getting good flow from the running game against Georgia are on his shoulders.
“I take responsibility because I think I overanalyzed it,” he said. “Our running backs haven’t done a great job of making people miss and the other guys were so we wanted to put it in the hands of the guys that can make guys miss.”
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If Florida is to get a good offensive game in Nashville, the Gators will have to do a better job of eliminating turnovers and penalties plus keeping Chris Leak’s jersey clean.
“If we take care of the football and we don’t have the penalties, everything is all right,” said Meyer. “We got to protect the quarterback, too. First play of the game [against Georgia] we have it all set to take a shot to Dallas Baker and he gets pressured on the first play. We have to protect the quarterback and get rid of those penalties.”
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Baker now has 128 career receptions, moving him ahead of Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony into tenth place all time in Florida history. With six catches he will tie Richard Trapp in ninth place and with seven he ties Taylor Jacobs at 133.
Leak has moved into second place all-time in passing yardage at Florida with 9,337 yards (Danny Wuerffel leads with 10,875). Leak is second in touchdown passes with 81 (Wuerffel has 114).