The Mark Miller Report: Man up gentlemen

Well, that was ugly wasn’t it? I want to start by saying that the Florida Gators were beaten before they ever took the field in Baton Rouge last week. Florida was simply outcoached. For half a season, LSU coach Les Miles unleashed senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger on opposing defenses and it worked beautifully. Mettenberger was chocking up 300-yard passing games week after week. Without that fumble by Odell Beckham on a punt return against Georgia, LSU would be undefeated and ranked in the top five right now. Against Georgia, Miles put the Tigers in position to win but his team failed to execute.

Against Florida, Miles’ options were to allow Mettenberger to throw the ball all over the field, creating the possibility that Florida’s defense could score points or set up the Gators with a short field, or to go old school. Miles went old school, turning Florida coach Will Muschamp’s own strategy against him. After watching film of Gator running backs gaining less than three yards a carry against lesser talented Arkansas, Miles concluded that the only way Florida could score enough points to win this game was if the Tigers helped them. Ironically, that is the same realization that Muschamp had during the first half against LSU in The Swamp last season. So LSU returned the favor and it worked to perfection. The Gator offense was rendered impotent and the game was effectively over when the Tigers scored their first touchdown.

This is the one adherent flaw in Muschamp’s plan to win. Will’s philosophy appears sound on the surface because the Gators will win a lot of football games based simply on the defensive talent they can put on the field. It can be argued that with injured Dominique Easley in the lineup the Gators might have beaten LSU. Since the one requirement for LSU’s game plan to work was success in the running game, Easley might have made the difference. The bigger issue here is that to win championships, you have to be able to score at least a moderate amount of points. I realize that Florida was very close to making it to Atlanta last season, but I fail to see any way the Gator offense could have scored enough on points to beat Alabama. I believe that Muschamp’s approach is quite capable of averaging ten regular season wins a year, but I do not see championships in his future unless he finds a way to field a viable offense. Athletic director Jeremy Foley’s philosophy is simple: compete for championships, not every year, mind you, but it should be a realistic goal most years.

Defensively, this team is good enough to win a championship and it was good enough last season. So the question becomes what is wrong with the offense? Is it a lack of talent? Is it a lack of development? Or is it a bad offensive game plan? Or all of the above? I would answer yes, as in all of the above. I believe Florida’s starting receivers and running backs are solid but unspectacular. Quinton Dunbar and Trey Burton are very good possession receivers but not game-changing playmakers. Many Gator fans have been pining about playing time for freshmen Kelvin Taylor, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fullwood. With the season ending injury to starting running back Matt Jones it is likely that Taylor will get more carries to which I say “be careful what you wish for.” While I believe that Taylor is more talented than the two backs ahead of him on the depth chart, there is more to playing running back than just carrying the football. Florida’s running game is not going to get demonstrably better unless the passing game improves first. Right now, teams are just loading up the box to stop the Gator running game and then blitzing on passing downs. Florida’s offensive line is nowhere near good enough to open running lanes against a loaded box and it needs all the help it can get blocking blitzes. If a young running back is out of position to pick up the blitz or just fails to make the block, Gator quarterback Tyler Murphy is going to get hammered. That is happening enough already.

This brings us to what is the real problem with Florida’s offense. I will not belittle individual college players. They deserve better than that. I have no problem, however, calling out an entire unit. The Gator offensive line should be embarrassed. Week after week, their very manhood has been challenged and has been found to be horribly lacking. Every week it is the same thing – drive-killing penalties, few if any holes to run through and whiffs on key blocks. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a guard standing two steps across the line of scrimmage looking back and forth for someone to block while his running back had a defender wrapped around his legs two yards behind the line. There is something fundamentally wrong with Florida’s blocking and it has been that way for quite some time. Perhaps it is a lack of talent although recruiting the last few years would seem to have been good enough to overcome the injury to one starter. Perhaps it is the development (or lack thereof) of players after they get to Gainesville or perhaps it is just the blocking schemes themselves. I do not pretend to know. What I do know is that something is not working. From John Brantley to Jeff Diskel to Tyler Murphy time to find a target and throw a pass from the pocket has been a rare commodity. No quarterback can find consistent success under constant pressure and no running back can consistently gain yardage if the offensive line is not opening holes. Something will have to change with regards to the offensive line. Offensive line coach Tim Davis seems to have the experience and pedigree for the job so I am really at a loss as to why the Gator O-line appears to be clueless most of the time.

Where are the playmakers on offense? Is it possible that the talent level at Florida is actually that bad at wide receiver, running back and offensive line? That seems unlikely but nobody steps up when it is time to make a play and we haven’t even discussed the tight end position yet. In the 2012 recruiting class, Florida signed two of the top tight ends in the country in blocking TE Colin Thompson and pass catching TE Kent Taylor. So far neither has made any significant contributions (granted there have been nagging injuries involved) and the Gators seem to be getting little in the way of blocking and even less in pass production from the position. This is important because a receiving threat at tight end forces opposing defenses to account for another offensive threat rather than jamming up running lanes or blitzing the quarterback. This team desperately needs something to loosen up opposing defenses and this position is virtually non-existent.

Based on everything you have just read, it would seem that the Florida offense is beyond repair and perhaps it is for this season. However, I have come to the conclusion that the first requirement for offensive improvement may well be a change in focus and philosophy by the head coach. I saw a Brent Pease offense without the depth of talent available at Florida light it up against a Georgia defense when Pease was at Boise State. I know he can design an offensive game plan that can be successful in the SEC. The only conclusion I can come to is that Pease is hindered by the defensive-minded philosophy of the head coach. I like Will Muschamp and I believe that he can be extremely successful long term at Florida. I think he is building a program that can contend year in and year out. However, it might be time for him to come to grips with the fact that he is no longer a defensive coordinator. He is responsible for scoring points as well as preventing the other team from doing so. Near-complete offensive ineptitude will not win championships.

There are some questions about player development anywhere outside the defense. We have discussed the offensive woes but special teams might be even worse. Austin Hardin was supposed to be an elite kicker, but has now lost his job to a walk-on who wasn’t even a part of the traveling team until last week. Punter Kyle Christie has regressed from one of the best in the country last season to an absolute liability this year. So much so that Muschamp opted to pretend to be going for on fourth down at one point only to have his quarterback pooch kick it down to the one. Christie did throw for a critical first down on a fake punt, however, which brings me to this alarming tidbit: In the loss to LSU, the best punt came from the Gator quarterback, the best pass came from the Gator punter and ALL of the Gator points came from somebody who was barely even on the team a week earlier. This is NOT encouraging.

Florida finds itself miraculously still in control of its own destiny in the SEC East. The Gators are off to face a Missouri team that has just lost its star quarterback for at least the next month. However, the backup quarterback is very good. Florida will not win this game kicking field goals. After that it is a bye week and then off to Jacksonville to take on an injury-riddled Georgia team. The possibilities still exist but the offense MUST be better for the Gators to keep alive their hopes of making it to Atlanta.  For that to happen, the Gator offensive linemen must find their manhood and make a statement. They must stop being the whipping boys of the SEC. Man up gentlemen.