The Mark Miller Report: Expect another close one

Go anywhere in SEC territory and you hear this so often: Nobody suffers a win like Gator fans. There is some truth to this but blame it on the Ole’ Ball Coach. Many Gator fans, many of whom did not climb onto this particular bandwagon until the 90s when 40 and 50 point blowouts of both bottom feeders and contenders became the rule and not the exception. So many of those folks find themselves unfulfilled with a conservative 24-6 win over somebody like Toledo. I get that. I loved those old offensive explosions. But this is a different regime with a different approach. Not better and not worse, just different.

Will Muschamp will never intentionally run the score up on a defeated opponent. It just isn’t his style. Nor are you likely to see many 300 yard passing games with Muschamp. That probably isn’t going to be the game plan very often. However, the Gators have won 13 of their last 15 games against one of the most difficult schedules in the country even without the flash and pizzazz in the offense. That really should be enough for most fans.

Last Saturday’s game against Toledo revealed a little about this Gator team. First, and maybe most important, is that there is indeed a deep and talented group of running backs this year. Florida’s offense suffered late last season when Gillislee was banged up somewhat and the drop off behind him was substantial. Matt Jones, Gillislee’s anointed successor, didn’t play against Toledo but you can’t say he was missed. Mack Brown looked very solid going over the hundred yard rushing mark while also picking up most of his blocks (there were a couple of brutal misses). Kelvin Taylor and Mark Herndon both showed skills in the fourth quarter. As long as they can pick up their blocking schemes, each should get some chances as the season progresses. With Jones set to return this week, that’s a rather good looking four-deep on the chart.

The offensive line appeared serviceable for the most part and had some spectacular moments. There were a few catastrophic whiffs on the edge but you do not run for more than 250 yards without the folks up front fulfilling their sworn duty to block. Hopefully, this unit will continue to gel and develop depth with time, particularly with the eventual return of starting right guard Jon Halapio. Without a doubt, the offensive line looked better than it did at this point last season.

The improvement of the O-line will benefit Jeff Driskel more than anyone. Driskel looked much more comfortable in the first game of the 2013 season than perhaps any game last season. On his first pass, Jeff looked off the defensive backs before throwing a nice completion. Last year he would have locked on his intended receiver early allowing the defensive backs to close on the pass. Driskel looked sharp and accurate. More importantly, he looked confident. I believe that will lead to an expanded passing game as the season moves along and the opponents get tougher.

One big question for me – although others felt it was a foregone conclusion – was  the defense. Despite hearing all summer that this defense would be at least as good as the one that dominated most games in 2012, I wanted to see it on the field. I didn’t see the same domination, but it was certainly an effective is for game one. The return of Antonio Morrison and Darious Cummings this week will only make it better.

The other item of concern from week one is the number of penalties. Granted, some of them were defensive offside penalties, which were in part due to the Toledo center illegally flexing his non-snap arm to draw the defense off. Once a defense recognizes someone is going to get away with something like that they have to adjust accordingly. Offensive penalties are a greater concern. This offense is not designed to overcome getting behind the chains a lot and those penalties directly affected the final score. That must improve.

That brings us to this week’s game against Miami in South Florida. There is a lot of talk among the so-called experts about how improved Miami will be this year. That may be, but what I saw last week tells me that if you stop Duke Johnson, you will beat the Hurricanes.

This is right in Will Muschamp’s wheelhouse. The Gator head coach excels at taking away one dimension of an opposing team’s offense. The Gators field a deep and talented front seven. The Florida secondary was extremely impressive Saturday. Even true freshman Vernon Hargreaves III came out ready to contribute in his first game. His interception took the wind out of Toledo’s sails, effectively ending the game. Muschamp has the luxury of leaving his corners on an island if needed to cheat a safety up to help stop the running game. Expect the Gator defense to hold Miami’s touted offense in check most of the game. I look for maybe one sustained drive each half from the Hurricanes.

Miami gave up an average of 30.5 points a game in 2012 and the Hurricanes return eight starters from that bad defense. However, a defense can improve greatly as young starters get another year under their belt (see Gators 2007 to 2008). Miami has recruited well and there is certainly talent on the roster. I do not expect the Hurricanes to be nearly as porous on defense as they were last season but I do not expect them to dominate either. Look for Demarcus Robinson to get his first reception (and touchdown) as a Gator in this game. The return of Matt Jones will make the Gator rushing attack that much more potent, forcing Miami’s safeties to cheat up to stop the run.

All of that said, here is what I think Gator fans will see on Saturday. Expect the offensive game plan to be closer to what we saw against Toledo than many want to believe. If the Gators get up early and the defense is holding the Miami offense in check, do not look for Muschamp to take any offensive risks that might give the Hurricanes a chance to get momentum and make it a game. However, if Miami is moving the ball well on offense the Gator offense will air it out more and take some chances. As has been the case with this staff since it arrived in Gainesville, they will allow their offensive game plan to be molded by what is going on in the game.

I realize this can be problematic to some Gator fans who became accustomed to the Ole’ Ball Coach imposing his will on opponents regardless of the game situation, but I would like Gator fans to remember that Steve Spurrier’s philosophy wasn’t perfect and there were games that could have been won except for second half turnovers. Muschamp believes his job is to win games and therefore championships and not to entertain. I agree with him. I find winning very entertaining.

Florida and Miami do not like each other and that should make Saturday’s game a hard-hitting nail biter, at least in the first half. I look for the Gator defense to start smothering the Hurricane offense in the second half and for Florida to take advantage of good field position to put some points on the board. In the fourth quarter, Gator fans will find out if this team can run the ball effectively, move the chains and eat up clock when a quality team stacks the box to stop the run. My prediction for the final score is Florida 27, Miami 17.

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Mark Miller
Mark Miller's bravery knows no limits. He's a Gator living deep in the heart of Georgia. Mark's weekly columns appear in the Coosa Valley News in Rome, Georgia, where Gators are few and Bulldogs are many. His updates about football and life among the heathens will appear in Gator Country on a weekly basis.