Gators experiencing a running game revival

Throughout his tenure as UF’s head coach, Dan Mullen has touted his ability to drastically alter his offensive scheme from season to season based on what group of plays best match what his players excel at.

If he has a mobile quarterback, a dominant offensive line and an excellent group of running backs, he’ll turn them into a run-first offense. Or, as was the case the last two years, if he has an accurate pocket passer and a deep group of receivers, he can turn his offense into something Mike Leach would be proud of.

Still, you can’t help but marvel at just how different the offense has been so far this season. In 2020, the Gators led the nation in passing and broke several SEC and program records. The running game ranked 96th in the country. The running backs combined for six rushing scores all season.

After two games in 2021, UF leads the country in rushing at 381.5 yards per game. Second-place Air Force, a triple-option team, is averaging 21.5 yards fewer per game. UF’s running backs have already scored four rushing touchdowns.

“It’s fun,” running back Dameon Pierce said. “Any time my number [is] called, I’m just … ready to make a play. But, obviously, it’s fun; they don’t know whether to go for the quarterback or the running back, so it makes it easier to run on my end.”

Pierce’s last point might be the biggest key to the entire turnaround.

While the offensive line’s run-blocking has drastically improved over the past couple of years, the running abilities of quarterbacks Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson have changed the way defenses are playing them.

Richardson is second in the SEC with 275 rushing yards, while Jones is ninth with 155 yards. Richardson has scored from 73 and 80 yards out and is averaging an astounding 25 yards per carry.

“Going into the season, we know that we have different quarterbacks and stuff like that, so our offense is definitely going to change,” left tackle Richard Gouraige said last week. “We just had to dial in as a whole offense. These are guys that, these are their strong suits and stuff like that, and we just have to execute with these type of players. So far, we’ve been handling the situation pretty well.”

Those explosive runs from the quarterbacks both inflate the Gators’ rushing statistics and make things much easier for the running backs. UF’s had a bunch of success running read-option plays this season. On those plays, the quarterback reads the defensive end to see if he crashes down on the running back or stays wide to play the quarterback. If the quarterback makes the correct decision, the defensive end is always wrong.

Having a mobile quarterback makes the defense hesitate for a split second, which in turn means that the offensive line doesn’t have to be as perfect to open up holes.

The biggest beneficiaries of that have been Pierce and Malik Davis. Davis leads the backs with 21 carries and 126 yards, while Pierce leads the team with three touchdowns. Davis is averaging six yards per carry, while Pierce and Demarkcus Bowman are both averaging more than seven yards per carry. All five scholarship running backs have logged at least seven carries.

“We have a bunch of good backs,” Mullen said after the South Florida game. “You saw the spectacular touchdown run that [Pierce] made, I mean, unbelievable run. We have a bunch of good backs that we roll through and, again, long season; we want to keep those guys fresh, keep those guys healthy.”

While the Gators enter week three as the nation’s top rushing team, it’s going to take a minor miracle for them to exit the week as such. Alabama’s defensive line is once again stocked with a bunch of ginormous guys who look like they were created in some sort of football lab. They’ve held their first two opponents to 79.5 rushing yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry.

However, the Crimson Tide will be down at least one starting linebacker and possibly two. Christopher Allen, who led the conference with 13 tackles-for-loss in 2020, will miss the game with a fractured foot. Their other outside linebacker, Will Anderson, is “day-to-day” with a knee injury, according to coach Nick Saban. Anderson finished third in the SEC in sacks last year.

As usual, Saban has a couple of extremely talented players ready to step into larger roles. Pierce doesn’t expect Alabama to do anything different schematically even if they’re down two starting linebackers.

“If they’re anything like us, I wouldn’t imagine it would change their scheme much because they’ve got plenty of guys on scholarship, plenty of guys that make plays, just like we’ve got plenty of guys that are ready to make plays,” Pierce said. “I’m pretty sure depth isn’t a problem for them.

“It doesn’t change anything on our end. We’re preparing the same way. You know, 8-9 times out of 10, they’re going to line up the exact same lineup or formation, whatever it may be.”

The Gators are an improved rushing team; there’s no doubt about that. But have they improved enough to carry an inconsistent passing game to an upset victory over the top-ranked team in the country?

Pierce knows that they’ll have to elevate their game to an even higher level to find success on the ground against the Crimson Tide.

“The first two games, that’s probably a game we have more talent,” Pierce said. “We could probably overcome a few things, and then, this week, the talent is probably 50-50 either way. It’s an SEC game. So, we can’t get away with a lot of things that we got away with the first two games. That’s really number one. We’ve really got to be more offensively sound and execute better.

“We just go in week-in and week-out [and] try to execute our game plan. We end up No. 1 rushing, we’re No. 1 rushing, baby. We’ll take that every day of the week.”

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.