PD’s Postulations: Thoughts on the Carolina Game

    They say that necessity is the mother of invention. That theory may have been tested Saturday night in Columbia for the Florida Gators. The Gators had not found themselves more short-handed at quarterback since turning to Donald Douglas to finish out the 1989 season. At least Douglas provided the threat of a run from the signal caller. If this necessity precipitated the inspired and ultra-creative game plan and play calling, it may bode well for the offense in 2014. Because if the growing rumors are true and Brent Pease does return as offensive coordinator next year, his job at Florida – and with it, perhaps the job security of the whole staff – may rely on his performance matching that of Saturday night’s. And that necessity may just birth a new offensive brainchild. Either way, 2014 sets up to be the most pivotal Gator season since 2004.

    As for 2013, Saturday’s game was a microcosm of the season in four different ways. Actually the game was one microcosm, and there were two specific plays and one drive that were themselves microcosms of the season.

    Microcosm 1: The first was the attempted 4th down trick play out of the novel formation with Burton throwing to Leon Orr. It was a truly inspired play design and play call. How this mirrored the season is that the coaches took a very limited set of resources and put them in position to make the play. However, as it has been all year, the margin for error was zero. And as it has been all year, the players on both ends of the play just failed to execute a very executable play. It was a carbon copy of the failed Burton-to-Burton fourth down trick play last year in Tallahassee, at least in terms of each player’s culpability. Both times Trey Burton threw a poor pass behind the receiver, but both times it was a very catchable pass, and both times the receiver had the ball in their mitts and simply failed to catch the ball.

    That’s story one of the season: the staff putting together one of a tiny set of plays that can work with the limited personnel, with no margin for error, and the players exceed the margin for error and fail to execute.

    Microcosm 2: This was the play that ended the game except for the formalities of running out the clock. In the worst spot in the game, I found myself dishing out compliments. Skyler Mornhinweg was finally forced to throw the ball. He was throwing it short, and making connections except for the passes that the receivers were unwilling to catch. But it was not the freshman making the first start of his career that brought a compliment, but rather the much-maligned (with good reason) offensive line. Even with the best pass rusher in the country trying to break through, even with the entire defense knowing that only passes were coming on every play, the offensive line was keeping the pocket squeaky clean. That hasn’t been done by this offensive line since that game at the end of last year, upstate. On the very next play, as my compliment was still hanging in the air, although they had four playing on the line of scrimmage, they only rushed one. The other three were watching (only two of them even engaged at the line of scrimmage). And the OL let that one single rusher walk right into the pocket and flush Skyler, destroying his planned passing play and creating the scramble throw that jumped the game forward to the inevitable end.

    That’s story two of the season: the minute a unit or a player starts to play well, the moment you think, “Hey, at least they’re finally playing well. Really well, in fact. We might be in good shape there after all…,” they go out and lay an egg that cripples a drive or a game.

    Microcosm 3: This is similar to Microcosm 1, but it is a different level. The coaches entered the game knowing that the team was at another historical disadvantage (which for this team is a weekly redundancy). They had to come up with a killer game plan. A great game plan wouldn’t even cut it – it had to be just this side of amazing. And they did. And unlike most of the season, the players were executing it at a very high level. And it worked. Again, however the margin for error was zero or something like it. There was an expiration date on the game plan as well, and that was halftime. Although the offense continued to move on some second half drives, with Carolina’s defensive adjustments, the offense had just enough effort fall short to kill each drive.

    The offense, against all odds, staked the team to an 8-point lead. But they couldn’t sustain it on offense, defense or special teams. Time and again in the second half, the game plan would have worked if the players kept executing, but they did not. The penalties started cropping up again, crippling drives. There were guys dropping passes thrown right in their hands. Gators started missing downfield blocks on running plays that turned the difference-making runs of the first half into the pedestrian short gains of the second half.

    That’s story three of the season: The staff designs the right game plan, given the resources with which they have to work, and penalties and lack of players making plays burns through the zero margin for error and then some.

    Microcosm 4: This is where the game was lost. Just when it looked like the Gators were poised to position themselves to build on their lead in the second half, they gave the game away. Clinging to a 1-point lead, the Gators pinned the Gamecocks on their own 5-yard line with one of the Gator’s Thylacine-rare punt and coverage plays and a short penalty tacked on. Carolina faced a first-and-fifteen in the shadow of its own goal posts, with the Gators appearing poised to finally take the game away for good. All it would take is one big defensive play, or a simple 3-and-out and come out on offense with great field position to salt the game away. However, they killed that opportunity in just one play, letting a simple handoff up the middle – the play that everyone in the stadium knew was coming – go for nearly 60 yards. Three plays later they give up a 34-yard pass. Chip shot field goal to follow (SC is one of those 99.9% of the nation’s college football programs that has someone capable of kicking a chip shot field goal). Lead finally surrendered. All Gator momentum gone. All air let out of the Gator balloon. That put the Gators’ chances on life support, and we all know that our injuries this year forced the Gators to sign a DNR form (“Do Not Resuscitate”).

    That’s story four of the season: As great as the defense plays during the game, the defense inevitably breaks at the most critical point in the contest that puts the final steak it the Gators’ collective heart. Unlike last year, through the offense’s inability to match second half drives and the defense missing key elements and a very key lynchpin player (so please let me be clear I am not blaming the defense), the defense just doesn’t have enough gas in the tank to finish the drill. How could they? They are but young men, not Marvel super heroes.

    Extra Microcosm 5: When just one turnover would have made all the difference in the world between winning and losing, we could not come up with one for the whole game.

    Trying to Answer the Call

     I cannot fault Syker for throwing that pass that resulted in a game-ending interception. He was trying to make a play. That has been the death knell of all three quarterbacks this year: Driskel against Miami, Murphy against Vanderbilt and now Mornhinweg against Carolina. The quarterbacks are under so much pressure to make plays because except on rare occasions, the rest of the offense simply refuses to make plays.

    What I Loved About the Game

    Yeah, it is difficult to say that one could love anything about a 5th-straight loss for an elite program that won 11 games just last year. But how could you not love the heart and effort of those Gator players? How could you not love the ingenuity of the coaching staff to not only put together a winning game plan (but for some faulty second half execution) and the coaching tenacity to get the rag-tag offensive line – which in its tape-and-thumbtack condition has no business holding its own against the defensive front of South Carolina – to play at a high level the whole game.

    But the best lasting effect was the players’ will and courage and heart. It really sent the message that this program and these Gator are not about to go gentle into that good night. And when they line up for their last game of the season against undefeated #2-ranked, BCS title game-bound FSU, you can bet your last dime that they will rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Playing with that kind of heart will boost recruiting. We have the spirit; just need more tools.

    The play calling and game plan will boost recruiting. We have the staff that can put the players in position to win and to do so against all odds; just need our health and more players who can execute a lot better.

    The Gators put the country on notice Saturday night. The message was clear: although we are suffering through a number of losses, we are not that far away and we are certainly not going away. While the program is at least two years away from being a mature, depth-steady program with elite talent at every position, the Gators are close to being a contender again. Close to being a top 10 team again (yes, consider what teams have been in the top 10 this year). Close to being a fun team to watch on both sides of the ball. We’re close.

    As close as Leon Orr was to catching a Trey Burton pass.

    We are a couple of years away from returning to greatness, but we are just a little Lester Hayes Stickum away from being back in the game.

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    Franz Beard
    Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.