Last week the Gator program and Gator Nation was hurting. Still stinging badly over the Miami loss where the offense performed the antithesis of the twelve wins over the previous season and change, and having lost the leader of the offense and the defense for the season just a few days apart from each other. Gators everywhere needed a shot of healing. For the last 26 years, the Kentucky football team has been there to lend a healing hand. This year, again they did not disappoint.
Just What the Doctor Ordered
No matter what is going on in Florida football, no matter what the record or projection, a win is a win and it is always a great thing. A conference win on the road is even better. Staying undefeated in SEC play sprinkles sugar atop the whole thing. When you beat a team for the 27th-straight time — the longest streak in the nation — it is always a reason to celebrate. But there are many more reasons to celebrate. Personally, I think one of the biggest reasons to celebrate is that Florida extended its streak of holding SEC opponents to 20-or-fewer points to 11 consecutive games. To reprise the theme from last week, in a defense-dominated league, Florida is the only team in the conference to maintain this streak for more than one game. Alabama, with their shutout of Ole Miss, now has a one game streak, while the rest of the SEC – all 12 remaining teams – have a streak of ZERO-straight. The significance of this streak is not in the stat itself, but in what it says about this program, this staff and the future of the Gator program. But more on that later. First, some celebration.
Reason to Celebrate #1: Tyler Murphy
As I discussed in my column on the Tennessee game, while Tyler Murphy played outstanding and breathed life into what must have been a shell-shocked offense after losing its field general, there was reason not to pile too many expectations on the young man’s back because he was not being asked to make many complicated reads and progressions. We would have to wait and see how he was able to perform if and when the staff asked him to do more. Well, against Kentucky, we saw the Gators run more complex passing patterns and basically the same offense they ran before Murphy took over against Tennessee. The results obviously speak for themselves. While going 13-of-13 is great, what was far more important was that he was going through his progressions properly and at a necessary game speed. Tyler stated after the game that he was slow in some of his reads and it is true that he did miss some. However, on the ones I saw, the offensive line allowed the pressure to come through when those windows were open. It appeared he missed his windows out of prudence and didn’t pull the trigger to prevent throwing a risky ball. Of course he still made positive plays out of those where he missed his window, one of them being the great downfield sideline tiptoe pass to Dunbar.
It was Tyler Murphy’s day: Correct reads, accurate and timely throws, getting the team out of bad plays and into good ones at the line, and making positive plays when the progressions or protections broke down. All while on the road against a SEC defense that had just a week prior seriously frustrated all-world Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and held the #7-ranked Cardinals to 28 points below their average scoring total the rest of their season. Oh, and he broke Tim Tebow’s mark for most consecutive completions to start a game.
This was my day: breathing a measured sigh of relief. After seeing Murphy only being asked to execute simple reads against Tennessee, the concern was with his more limited game experience and far fewer practice reps this fall, whether he could execute the complex reads that would be required to compete with all of the ranked opponents coming up on our schedule. There was no way of knowing after the UT game. What the Kentucky game told me is that Murphy was not being asked to do less because he could not do more. The staff was just being safe. It told me that when Murphy was rushed into action against an SEC foe, already trailing by seven points, the staff still knew that they had Tennessee covered as long as the offense did not rain down turnovers again. Given that there were already two turnovers on the board before Murphy even took the field, I have to believe the coaches astutely decided not to put too much pressure on Tyler’s shoulders while being thrown into the fire with no warning: Give him plays he can execute in his sleep, let him build confidence and comfort and go home with a win. Against Kentucky, after Murphy had a full week getting nearly all the practice reps, the staff felt comfortable with his handling of the whole offense.
The Florida staff is an exceptionally smart group of football minds. Their schematic and game day prowess has been clear to see over the last 17 games, but this is yet another example of how good they are at managing personnel on the field and in their game psyche. And going forward, if Murphy can make all the reads, then that once again changes the trajectory of expectations for this team – this time in a decidedly positive direction. But again, every week is another reveal for this team.
Reason to Celebrate #2: Matt Jones
One of the many misguided assaults on the Florida coaching staff this season has been the perpetual questioning of their personnel decisions at running back. Why aren’t they starting Mack Brown instead of Matt Jones? Why are they “holding back” Kelvin Taylor and not “giving him a chance?” Well we saw in Lexington exactly why the coaches didn’t simply give up on Matt Jones because he has been slow to recover from his viral infection. When Jones is seeing the field and has his legs back under him like he did Saturday, he is a difference maker at the highest level in the SEC. He has finally regained some of that explosion we saw last year and the coaches saw all spring, and has started to see the field again which is allowing him to make decisive cuts and most importantly, hit the right hole (which he could not do against Miami, or else Florida would have demolished them even with the five turnovers). I would be willing to bet that he is still not even back to 90% of his full strength. Barring further injury, going forward we should expect to see very powerful running from him – running that will change the way defenses have to approach the offense both in scheme and personnel; running that will give Tyler Murphy a little more room and a little more time to operate.
Reason to Celebrate #3: Remember When the SEC was a Defensive League?
With the 20-point threshold streak as a benchmark, the weekly displays of ineptness from normally stout SEC defenses this season have been eye-opening. While hyper-focusing on the Gator issues the first few weeks, it was difficult not to regard the future Gator games against LSU, UGA, SC and FSU with significant concern. However, that concern has started to shift away from the Dark Side. Thus far this season, the Georgia and LSU defenses have looked downright bad. The double no-show when they faced each other Saturday may have been fun to watch for fans of offensive explosions, but I found it hard to stomach at times. They didn’t combine for 85 points simply by virtue of good offenses beating good defenses (again and again and again and again…). It seemed at times to be just 60 minutes of blown assignments, bad angles, wrong alignments and poor tackling. The defenses were simply bad. Like Georgia’s was against Clemson (and South Carolina)…(and North Texas). And like LSU’s was against Auburn (and TCU)…(and UAB).
Then you had the erstwhile invincible Florida State squad struggling mightily to eke out a win over the 2-and-2 Boston College squad that was obliterated last week by a USC team that is so bad that its coach just got fired after Week 5. They gave up 200 yards on the ground (and nearly 200 more through the air), surrendered 22 first downs (to 24 of their own) and lost the time of possession battle by seven minutes. They fell behind 17-3 in this game; spot the Gators 14 points in the Swamp and FSU will not be getting back into that one.
And of course South Carolina has looked somewhere between shaky and outright bad the entire year. If the Florida defense had any reservations about how it will perform against the SC offense, how does being shut out in the first half by UCF grab you? And when pondering the chances of the Gator offense finding success against Spurrier’s defense, the ‘Cocks have given up an average of 30 points the last three games, including 25 allowed to the offensive juggernauts of Vanderbilt and Central Florida.
Granted, there is a lot of football left to be played and the Gator squad still has not faced any of the four best opponents on its schedule, but as of now, there is no reason to believe the Gators will not be able to compete in every game they have left. And that’s all this staff seems to need to coax out a “W”.
Reason to Stay Grounded
While I did not see the magnitude of Murphy’s performance coming (who did?), I certainly knew he would play well Saturday. I was however surprised that the defense looked so shaky without Dominique Easley. True, the defense threw a shutout Saturday – the touchdown chalked up to a special teams error (I was shouting “FIELD GOAL SAFE!” the entire time leading up to the Wildcat fake, but they never seem to hear me). But there is no mistaking the new holes that were opened for running backs and the lack of harassment the quarterback had to sweat throughout the evening. Sure, it is all relative, and any other SEC defense would kill to give up running lane holes that small every Saturday, but losing Easley changed our defense from dominant and smothering to one that is very strong but unsure. Yes, they surrendered the fewest total yards of any game thus far, but on a play-to-play basis on their drives that moved the ball, a difference was evident. A difference in energy and control.
Of course I should have expected that very thing. Easley is a true beast. He takes two steps into the backfield faster than the quarterback does on his drop – and he does it on every play. He occupies multiple blockers on every play, altering blocking schemes and freeing up other linemen and linebackers to make plays. All that in one jersey and it is suddenly gone. The defense will take a few games at least to find out where it will get that perpetual energy, and it will take a few games to find out who will raise their game to mitigate the loss of all the things that Easley did all by himself. Replacing or compensating for some of these missing pieces needs to be done over the next two weeks, because when they roll into Baton Rouge, they will need it all.
Reason to Celebrate: Bonus Round
Knowing now a little more about where Tyler Murphy is in his development, able to handle the complex reads in the set offense, the benchmark has been reset (which at this point is really getting redundant). The charge for this team is again very simple. I have a mantra I repeat in my head (and often aloud when watching the games, much to the annoyance of those watching with me) that I’ve always found to be the three essentials to winning football for any Florida team:
Play smart. Play tough. Hold the ball.
Florida – certainly in the modern age, marked by Spurrier’s first season in 1990 – has and will always have the level of and numbers in talent to win most of its games if it adheres to these three principles. No matter the style of offense – fun and gun, spread-option, pro-set – or defense, abide by these three standards and the team will win 10 games a year, baseline. Bare minimum. Of the remaining three to four games, some will come down to coaching decisions in the game, players making big plays and/or the luck of the bouncing ball.
The basics are simple. Play smart: Call a smart game from the sidelines; don’t commit costly or untimely penalties; don’t make mental errors on the field. Play tough: this one is exceedingly self-explanatory. Hold the ball: Don’t turn it over; possess the clock, don’t have many – if any – three-and-out possessions. Since the start of the 2012 season, when the Muschamp era really started on the field (because the first year was simply janitorial work), this rule of three has worked to perfection. Against Miami, they played tough but they did not play smart with respect to penalties and they turned the ball over repeatedly. Against Georgia, the same thing happened, with the same result. Against Louisville in January of course the Gators did none of the three. In all other games since the 2012 opener, they have followed these three guidelines with extreme prejudice and in those games they were unbeaten, even with an offensive line that played most game in wheel-away hospital beds.
And the primary reason this works without the usual talent or depth we’ve come to expect from Florida offenses is the Muschamp defense. This is the fourth-straight game in which they held the opponent’s offense to 12-or-fewer first downs, the third game in which they’ve held them to 220-or-fewer yards (and the first under 180), the third game of 50-or-fewer yards rushing (the fourth one was 66), and the third game holding the opposition to just one third down conversion (and only 38% on the fourth game). When your opponent only converts one third down in a game, you’re usually going to win, no matter what the offense does (short of five turnovers, of course). The offense has not been anything near as bad as fan perception would have it. This was the fourth game in four with over 380 yards (three with 400+), the third game of over 200 yards rushing, the fourth with over 20 first downs and the fourth game holding the ball for over 38 minutes. It is also the third game with over 50% conversion rate on third down (and this one was the highest, at 62%).
The defense is not going to change. It is not going to go through many fluctuating cycles – and none of them will be significant cyclical declines. And we know this. Anyone who thinks that Muschamp is not the right man for the job needs only to look at that streak of allowing 20-or-fewer points in a league game and compare to the rest of the conference. This defensive dominance will always be here as long as Muschamp is. And the reason we know this goes deep into his personal history.
But let’s discuss that topic next week. Until then, remember that life is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.