Defense learned what they’re capable of against Alabama

The Gators’ defense found out how dominant they can be against Alabama. They gave up just 152 yards over the final three quarters, including just three yards in the second quarter.

They only gave up 10 points over the final three quarters, which allowed the offense to mount a comeback. They recorded two sacks and seven tackles-for-loss against an offensive line that doesn’t usually give up many negative plays. They played tight coverage in the secondary and broke up seven passes.

For the game, they surrendered just 324 total yards, Alabama’s fewest in a game since 2018.

And they did all of that against an offense that is considered to be among the best in the country.

Unfortunately, though, UF’s defense also found out that they still have plenty of work to do to become a championship-caliber unit.

They gave up 172 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter. They allowed the Crimson Tide to convert seven of 13 third downs for the game, including four via penalty.

“We really just came together as a whole defense and decided that what had been going on [in] the first quarter, it was time for that to really cease, and we just couldn’t allow that to happen any more as a defense,” safety Rashad Torrence said. “So, when we came to the sideline after those three quick touchdowns, we decided enough was enough and flipped the switch.

“It just shows our potential. At the end of the day, we still lost. So, I feel like that stat is only something we can put in our back pocket and say, ‘OK, we did it once. There’s no reason why we can’t do it for the remainder of the season.’”

As the Gators’ 31-29 loss proved, you can’t just play well for most of the game and expect to beat a team of Alabama’s caliber. Becoming more consistent is priority No. 1 for this defense, starting on Saturday against Tennessee.

“It just shows us that [if] we execute Coach [Todd] Grantham’s play call, we can be very dominant,” cornerback Kaiir Elam said. “But when we have mental errors and missed tackles, I feel like that can be detrimental to us winning the game. So, as you guys see, we lost by two points. If I would have made that tackle on the goal line and held them to three points, I feel like that could have changed the game right then and there. So, I just feel like I need to do better in practice.”

Grantham said that he was pleased with the grit and resiliency that his players showed. Many defenses around the country would’ve probably imploded after falling behind 21-3 and gave up 40 or 50 points to Alabama.

Torrence said that the ferocious comeback attempt that the defense spearheaded showed him just how much fight this defense has in it.

“I really just learned that we were tighter than I realized,” he said. “I knew we were a tight group just from practicing and playing the first two games, but that game showed me that we had a lot more in us than I thought. It’s kind of great because I knew we had the potential. That just showed that we could perform at a high level and can do [it] consistently.”

Hopefully, though, they won’t need to rely on that resiliency and those in-game adjustments much more this season. Grantham is looking for a faster start this week.

“Our guys have worked really hard and invested a lot into playing, and they were ready,” he said. “But, in games like that, you’ve got to make sure you ignore the noise and you focus and you have the attention to detail we talked about, and we probably didn’t start that way.”

Slow starts on defense have been a bit of a recurring theme over the past few seasons. The Gators allowed South Florida to put together a 17-play, 85-yard drive in the first quarter. Georgia jumped out to a 14-0 lead on them last season. Ole Miss got off to a hot start in 2020, as did Miami and Florida State in 2019.

Head coach Dan Mullen said that the early struggles are sometimes the product of being a little too amped up to start the game. Guys try to force big plays instead of just doing their jobs. Eventually, they settle in and play better. They’ve got to figure out a way to expedite that process moving forward.

“I think some of it for us is getting in the flow of the game and making sure we get caught up to the speed of the game and the noise of everything that’s happening,” Mullen said. “We had a couple communication issues in the beginning of the game. We talked about [it with] our guys all week. It is a big game where there’s going to be a lot of emotion.

“Our guys are fired up, and there’s a tremendous amount of physical noise in the stadium and making sure we are just focused, not just the emotion and the fired-up part of it all. Just the complete focus on our execution and doing what we’re going to do. I think we’ve just got to be a little bit cleaner that way.”

That over-anxiousness showed up in the form of atrocious tackling and poor angles against Alabama. On the opening possession, Rashad Torrence took a bad angle and allowed Jameson Williams to pick up a first down on a third-and-9 play. Tre’Vez Johnson missed a tackle that allowed Jase McClellan to score a touchdown later in the drive.

As he pointed out, Elam missed a tackle on Brian Robinson that allowed the Tide to score a touchdown.

Elam said that the only way to improve their tackling early in games is to work harder on their tackling technique in practice.

“I feel like it starts in practice,” he said. “[If] we start fast and work on open-field tackling and making sure all our mistakes from last game don’t happen in practice, I feel like it will translate well into the game.

“I just have to go compete my behind off in practice and make sure all my teammates are juiced up and ready to go.”

Grantham said that they also need to work on their leverage. On most of the missed tackles, the defenders were in a good position to make a play but just didn’t execute. They need to get closer to the receiver when they catch the ball so that the receiver doesn’t have as much space to make a move on them.

“When you give a good athlete space, you’ve got to make sure you leverage those guys, and the leverage can be half a man, and a guy that’s as talented as those guys from a half a man standpoint can make you miss, can make you not be able to close to the hip or compress it to another guy,” Grantham said. “So, obviously, that’s something that will be emphasized in practice.

“We do need to continue to address it from a leverage standpoint, but you’re going to have some of those plays. It’s just a matter of making sure that we clean them up and take them to a minimum because, really, that was the difference in the game. There were a couple of other things, but, if we are able to maybe tackle a little bit cleaner, we can make one of those touchdowns a field goal, and it doesn’t really matter.”

The Gators came so close to turning in a legendary defensive performance and pulling off one of the biggest regular season victories in school history.

But this isn’t horseshoes or hand grenades. Coming close isn’t good enough.

UF’s defense knows how good they can be when they’re firing on all cylinders. Now they need to figure out how to keep that switch flipped to “on” all of the time.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.