Well there is no sugar-coating the visceral impact of this one. It cut deep. Deep into the stomach, perhaps even soul of every Gator fan alive and probably those passed on as well. This was a bad, bad loss. It is ugly any time a top-10 team loses to an unranked foe, and it certainly does not help that it is to the most hated ‘Canes. A rare chance to play them slips by once again without satisfaction. But mostly it was simply and quite literally unbelievable.
A Word on Luck
It is said that luck is cyclical. If it is – and we should all hope so – the Gators are in for a run of good fortune over the next few seasons that will be a gold mine of football glory. Because the last four years have been otherworldly in terms of bad luck. In 2010 and 2011, for all the problems and deficiencies, there is really no telling how well or how badly Florida would have fared if they had not lost their starting – and only effective – quarterback in game five each season. And then there is last year and this season. In 2012, the losses to injury along the offensive line were well chronicled: 4 of the 5 starters either on the disabled list or playing with debilitating injuries for over half the season. Surely this year we would see that curtailed a bit, so the thinking went, but there we were Saturday attempting a second half comeback that has become this team’s signature…with 60% of the starting offensive line out of the game with injuries. Again. One more starter goes down and Florida matches the unheard of number from 2012.
I can tell you that I have never seen such a thing happen to any program in the nation two years in a row. Ever. Have you? Every program has dings and bruises on the o-line every year, and everyone has a starter miss time now and then. But losing 80% of the starters one season and 60% (and counting – remember it is only week 2) in the following season is morbidly absurd. If there is karma in the world, Gator fans may as well order their tickets to next year’s national title game today.
Total Domination + Loss = “That Game”
Last week I said I expected to win by 2 TDs. Knowing all I know now about the way these two teams match up from watching the game, if they played again this Saturday, I would expect us to win by 3 TDs. Because this is the same game we play once a year – that game each season when we do everything wrong and nothing goes right for us. You all know the game of which I speak. It is a terrible burden the program carries around its neck like a dead albatross, who knows why. Oddly enough it usually happens against a team from Mississippi, and if not, it falls against Auburn more times than not. But it really hits deeply on the rare years like 1997 and last year when it happened against Georgia, or like this year when it happened against Miami.
If you just looked at the stat sheet, minus the turnover line, you would be giddy about what Florida did to Miami, and no force on Earth could convince you that the Gators had actually lost. They more than double up the ‘Canes in first downs 22-10, held their vaunted rushing attack to 50 yards while running for 122 themselves, out-gained them in punt and kickoff return averages, out-passed them 291 to 162, and out-gained them by almost double (413-212).
Even today it is difficult to believe we lost.
But you commit six turnovers (and the turnover on downs counts – it gave them the ball and took 3 points from Florida), there is no way you will ever beat a BCS conference team in their own house. It is a simple concept. Many factions of Gator Nation are reacting somewhere on the spectrum between measured criticism to going utterly ballistic about any number of aspects of the Florida team. The simple fact is that without all the turnovers – heck, without just one of them – Florida wins the game. The Gators were (-4) in turnovers on the day (I added both the turnover on downs and the Gator punt block, which canceled each other out); if they are even or just (-1) in that margin, they win comfortably.
Performance Not That Bad
It was a bad loss, but the frustration and that 60-minute feeling of trying to run in the mud definitely put a much worse perception on the performance than actually occurred. The Gators as a team did not play that badly. The defense was obviously stellar, but even the offense played a very good game, if not for the turnovers. Yes, you read that right: the offense played a very good game (with that one little qualifier).
Let’s consider the focal point of the ire of every Gator fan who is livid about the offensive performance: Jeff Driskel. Jeff played extremely well when he was not making big mistakes. This may sound ridiculous on the surface, but bear with me. Looking at his play on the afternoon, he completed 67% of his passes, just a biscuit under 300 yards (would have surpassed the mark easily if not for a couple more drops this week), threw for a touchdown and ran for a score, and even tossed a 46-yard bomb that would have been a walk-in touchdown if the O-line could have kept the defensive line off his back long enough to throw on-balance. If Gator fans were told before the game that Jeff would have that kind of a day against Miami, they would have been exuberant (and also would have assumed a victory, of course). However, he threw two interceptions inside the Miami red zone and lost a fumble inside the Florida red zone. Those gave Miami 7 points and took between 6 and 14 points away from Florida. Any one of which would have given the Gators a win. So Jeff actually played very well throughout the game as far as the development everyone wanted to see. He just made three colossal errors that the QB just can’t make. But they are errors that can be corrected. Danny Wuerffel had games like this in his second year starting as well. But by the time he was in his third year, he was a different player. Jeff will be in his third year as the starting quarterback next season; it remains to be seen if he overcomes these big mistakes that contributed mightily to this game and to the Georgia game last year. But unlike many in Gator Nation, I am not going to write off this young talent just yet.
Overall, putting aside the stinging loss, there was really a lot to be happy about in terms of performance. The game was a display of total domination of the Miami team in all phases of the game. The offense – for all the criticism heaped upon them – moved the ball impressively to start the game again, and kept moving the ball pretty well all day. The offense was very effective, it just couldn’t stop shooting itself in the foot in the red zone. I said in my previous column that this team has no margin for error. I was wrong. They apparently do have a very big margin for error: they committed six turnovers that accounted for a point swing between 16 and 28 points…and they only lost the game by 5 points on the road with three of their starting OL out of the game and their starting running back still suffering the effects of a viral infection. Putting away the bile kicked up from this loss, we’ve got to admit that is pretty darn encouraging.
Of course, there was a lot of bad upon which to reflect as well. The offensive line will remain a big issue until Florida gets health restored. While Driskel made a number of shaky-to-terrible and very costly throws, I can’t think of three plays all day when he wasn’t under extreme duress. And an SEC offensive line should have been opening gaping holes against that weak Miami front, gashing them on the ground. But we rarely got more than 2, 3 yards a pop without holding. Everything the offensive line did Saturday was sub-par at best. But then, missing 60% of the starting linemen will do that.
The running backs lack of intensity and complete lack of speed, quickness or burst was very disappointing. But at least we know that Jones has the juice once he gets back to 100%. Dirskel’s decision making is pretty abysmal when he tries to do too much, and as long as the offensive line is not capable of doing its job, he will continue to be in that position of trying to do way too much – and with the defensive front usually sitting on his head. So this is something he simply must get a lot better at. Immediately. There are still no play makers anywhere; on the offense. This broken record will continue to skip each week until someone steps up and makes some plays. The coaches’ lack of trust of Demarcus Robinson & Ahmad Fulwood is very disappointing, because Quinton Dunbar and Trey Burton – for all their effort and dedication – will never be more than blue collar serviceable. And Trey – for all his versatility, football smarts and ability to come through in the clutch – continues to be a fumble machine.
There is an axiom often repeated in football and it was never more evident than Saturday in Miami: football is a game of inches. Had Vernon Heargaves’s foot not strayed a few inches out of bounds on his interception return, he scores a walk-in touchdown and the Gators win the game. The Gators opened the game marching effortlessly straight down the field for the second-straight week, and had the Miami helmet been one, maybe two inches lower when Matt Jones was tackled at midfield, then he does not fumble, the Gators most likely score and take a huge piece of momentum and most importantly, the avalanche of turnovers may never have started. Had Jeff been given one half second more to throw the ball on his 46-yard bomb to Solomon Patton, he may have been able to lead him properly and it is another walk-in touchdown and the Gators no doubt win. After finally zipping downfield and into the end zone at the end of the game, the Gators onsides kick was perfect except for one thing: the Gator player with the chance to recover hit the ground on his right side. The ball was at rest right at his numbers, but behind him. Had he fallen on his left side, he scoops the ball and the Gators have a really good chance of driving the short field with plenty of time for the win. If Jeff’s arm is going forward about a tenth of a second earlier when he was hit inside the Florida ten yard line late in the game, the ‘Canes never get that insurance score and Jeff’s touchdown pass to Patton on the next possession is for the win.
That is how close Florida was to victory Saturday. Inches. This is why football causes such high emotions. Inches separate winners and losers. Inches.
Another platitude that makes the rounds in college football is this one: He who has the best defensive tackles wins. Not on Saturday. Florida didn’t only have the two best defensive tackles on the field, it had the four best. Lost. We can stop using this line now.
I said in a few Gator Country forum threads following the game Saturday that the defense was not blameless in this loss. I said that they came out playing soft and unfocused and without their usual energy, and it put us in an early hole twice. Had they not done that, the offense – even with their turnover problems – would not have had to work under the duress of having to come back on the road once again. While the defense played pretty much flawlessly the rest of the day, they went a long way to absolving themselves, but they have their reason for shouldering part of this loss as well as the offense does. And as much as Jeff Driskel and the offense were the focus of fan criticism for not improving enough on foibles of last season, this was a repeat of the defense’s number one flaw in 2012: starting games slowly and without the intensity with which they finished games.
This position of course drew booming condemnation from most of the active members on the boards Saturday – many reasonable, many unreasonable. But as we found out not too long afterward, at least one guy agreed with me: Coach Muschamp.
This week’s forum topic of choice is the Gators’ boring offense. There is a debate simmering (sometimes raging) about whether the conservative approach is appropriate in terms of costing us games or winning us games, but today I will just address the discussion of how boring the offense is for fans to watch.
It is true, there is not a lot of scoring. Not a lot of long plays. The sports shows have to get very creative to find clips of the Gator offense that can qualify as a highlight. Many fans have stressed that they don’t like the style, it doesn’t entertain them, doesn’t thrill them. It doesn’t say it needs you; it doesn’t sing you love songs; it doesn’t bring you flowers anymore.
But I am going to float you a reason that you find it boring; a reason you don’t like the Muschamp/Pease offense:
You don’t like football.
And I don’t mean that in any negative way. And there is nothing unusual about it. College football is the most popular sport in the southeast and NFL football is the most popular sport in the country, but most Americans don’t like football.
They like highlights. They like scoring plays. They like long-gainers and field-flippers. They like turnovers and bone-jarring hits. But they don’t really like the game of football. Because football is what happens the rest of the time – and it is what makes all those things that you do like, happen. Consider soccer: Americans have never taken to it because it is “boring” but that translates into “not enough scoring.” Americans need action that leads to scoring; we are of an instant gratification mentality. But most of the best action – most of the best plays – in a soccer game happen far from any goal and do not lead to any scoring. To love soccer is to love to watch those plays. With no scoring.
To love football is to do the same: to love what happens from play to play in the trenches, in the flats, away from the ball. It is to love the first quarter strategy that often does not lead to scoring until the fourth quarter. It is to love the plays this week that set up plays for next week. It is to love the “stubborn” running game throughout the first half that gets nowhere, but consumes the clock and wears down a defense and allows the offense to steamroll it and pick it apart in the second half to win the game.
I like scoring, too. I loved the Fun and Gun and its non-stop highlight reel production. But I also loved all the little things that made it successful. Just as I love watching this Muschamp offense work. Sure, I would like to see more scoring – a LOT more. But as long as we are winning or at least rolling out the right plan to win every week if the execution is there, I am enjoying myself.
The worst thing about the offense is not the boring scheme or even lack of point production. It is the lack of intensity. When you watch our defense snap to snap, you get the feeling that on any given play, someone on offense is going to be ripped in half. Literally. But when Florida is on offense, they just do not play with any nastiness, any overt toughness, any fire. This matters a lot for a unit that has no play-makers and is riddled by injuries. I mean, an offense has to have SOMETHING to be successful. And this offense sorely needs some energy. Some excitement. And I don’t mean in terms of scoring at will excitement, but just some players who are out there to rip someone’s head off every single play. This year’s recruiting class has a great number of players that I believe are going to bring that intensity to the offense, but they are not yet ready to contribute. And I know that the offensive talent committed to sign this February will bring this fire to the field. We will just have to wait for them to get to campus. Meanwhile we wait to see if anyone in the regular rotation on offense is going to provide that energy. Hopefully it will be soon. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.