Between the Lines – What Worked and Didn’t

The Florida Gators may complain about a few bad calls not going their way, but they can’t say they didn’t have their chances to stay undefeated after a hard fought loss to Auburn Saturday night. The Gators have leaned on seniors to be a steadying force all season with some young guys making some plays in between. Saturday some of the old guys just didn’t live up to the test.

This Gator team had a bipolar type game between halves. In the first half the defense struggled allowing many long drives but still no touchdowns. At the same time the offense had the ball four times and had three long drives for scores in the half. In the second half, the defense allowed only 105 total yards and still no touchdowns, while the offense was tied down for all but one play. In the end it was the turnovers that cost the Gators.

What Went Wrong

Since the Gators lost we will start with the negative. Of course there will be plenty negative in a loss. On offense it was all about protecting the ball and just not making stupid plays in an environment like that. On defense it was about allowing a team to run when no one else has been able to all season.

Unlike some, I can’t fault the play calling in this game outside one or two plays in the entire game. In the first half I counted two bad plays by the offense in the entire half.

The inability to get 2nd and 1 and then 3rd and 1 at the six yard line turned out to be a big difference in the game. The Gators ran all half at will on the Tigers and then could not simply muster one yard on two consecutive plays. The guys on television were blaming the lineman that didn’t touch a defender splitting a gap. The fact was the blocking backs are responsible for anything in the backfield and their responsibility to the most dangerous man allowed the lineman to get to the ball carrier in the backfield on the 3rd down play. That shouldn’t happen.

The other play was a really questionable holding call on Jim Tartt. The closest thing I saw to a hold on the play was the fact his arm ended up around the defender when they both hit the ground. Otherwise I think Tartt just simply followed through with a block. The play cost the Gators a safety and that was pretty significant going down to the end of the game.

The second half was a different matter for the offense. While the first half had two bad plays the second had quite a few and they were costly. I didn’t mine the game plan coming into the half. Sure it seemed conservative to some, but the fact is the Gators were really successful in the first half running every which way on Auburn. I thought the staff may bring in Tebow more simply to be a runner because he actually allows for an extra blocker when he runs the ball, but the success without him in the first half running the ball certainly had me thinking the Gators would be able to do the same in the second.

The big holes just weren’t there. By the third series, the Gators suddenly found themselves in a little bit of a hole and with zero momentum. They dropped back a couple of times early in the half and got sacked. That in turn made Chris Leak look a little shaky for the first time since last year’s LSU game, in my opinion.

I have said it all year. Leak looks like he is just comfortable in the pocket, even when a little bit of heat has been applied to him. Saturday night, was the first he didn’t look comfortable and that was just the second half. The Tigers made some half time adjustments that the Gators just did not match up with and Leak was the one they really rattled in my opinion.

It started in the first series when he passed to Dallas Baker who dropped a first down. Leak had the room in front of him to run for some yardage after he rolled out to pass, but chose to throw it. It wasn’t a bad pass and should have been caught, but the safer and most efficient play was to get seven with his feet. The second down play on that drive was the reverse that went for minus six yards. It was probably incorrectly called by the referees as Percy Harvin’s knee didn’t hit the ground until he actually got to the line of scrimmage. Faced with their first long yard situation of the night, the Gators drop back and Carlton Medder got burned on the end and Leak was sacked. The game plan early to stay away from their defensive ends was a smart one.

The biggest play of the game happened next. Eric Wilbur has done some great things this year and he is not personally responsible for losing the game. But, when you are earning a scholarship at the University of Florida and you play five plays a game, you need to be able to perform on those five plays. His lack of concentration on the punt that was blocked was the single most devastating play of the game. It gave Auburn the lead, their first touchdown, and tons of momentum at the start of the second half. Simply watching the ball in and then punting it means the Gator defense gets a chance to keep them out of the end zone. A defense that has given up a total of one second half touchdown in seven games now.

A second sack on the next possession by the offense meant the Gators were not going to be dropping back and passing too much in the half. Although that sack was probably on Leak as he took too long to get rid of the ball. By then Leak was starting to feel the pressure when it wasn’t even there. He rushed a third down pass and the Gators had to punt again.

In my opinion the refs blew a call on the forward pass that they ruled a fumble. I saw the ball leave Leak’s hand and then change trajectory as the linebacker swatted it down. The refs saw something else. That was another three points off the board. Huge points near the end of the game when it meant Florida could move into field position to make a field goal and win it. I agree with most that Tebow should have stayed in on the play and thought so before the play. It was third and two and the safest play was to run it towards the middle of the field for a field goal shot and Tebow would have been the better option. Meyer and company wanted seven on the drive, so they went for the first down.

Leak’s last interception was also one of discomfort in the pocket. The absolute worst throw he has made under the game situations they were in quite some time. It is certainly his worst decision of the season. There was no excuse for that one and I am sure he would be the first to tell everyone that.

Defensively this game plan was not much different than any other so far. They wanted to keep everything in front and then make a play on the ball for a turnover and keep them out of the end zone. The Gators actually played more man defense than usual, and also played a cover one. This brought Tony Joiner in the box for run support and left Reggie Nelson scouting the middle of the field to keep everything in front of him.

It should have worked, but it didn’t simply because the offense and special teams’ implosions. Still, one worry is that they had an extra man in the box with Joiner and the Tigers were able to run on the Gators. The top two backs combined for 165 yards on 30 carries for an average of 5.5 yards per carry. That is way beyond what the Gators have allowed this season.

That is combined with the short passing game of the Tigers that accounted for nine of the first downs by the Tigers. The 182 yards weren’t ultra significant, but a few medium to long passes for first downs kept the Auburn offense on the field in the first half and kept a Gator offense that was rolling in the first half from getting more touches and possibly getting the game out of hand.

The biggest concern on defense still has to be the penalties. Another personal foul and a few more off side penalties on defense were crucial in keeping the defense on the field and continuing drives.

What Went Right

Offensively the Gators could do almost no wrong at the outset of the game. The Gators had the ball four times in the half and scored on three long scoring drives. The offensive line was plowing defenders and the Gators were really utilizing the misdirection and outside run on their way to averaging ten plus yards a carry in the first half.

The play calling was easy in the first half. The run was working so they stuck with it. The idea was to not let the Auburn defensive ends act on the quarterback so the offense rolled Leak out and that was working beautifully.

The Gators were getting the ball into the playmakers hands via the sweep or option as Percy Harvin and Andre Caldwell got several touches behind the line of scrimmage and rushed for a combined 119 yards. I think Caldwell is running the best I have seen him run and it is abundantly clear they need to get them the ball as much as possible. Man, Percy adds another dimension lining up in the I formation.

DeShawn Wynn was crashing the middle of the line as they were opening up holes and he averaged 4.2 yards per carry for the game.

Leak didn’t throw much early, but it was effective. In the first half the offense stayed away from a stationary pocket and Leak was finding receivers on the rollouts.

The offense had one good drive in the second half that saw the Gators get inside the ten yard line again. This was a statement drive and would have gone a long way towards altering the momentum. But, it was halted on the bad ref call on the Leak pass / fumble.

I thought the defensive game plan was great and made a lot of sense. Bring an extra man in the box in Tony Joiner and play more man coverage against receivers that are not all that great. The defense did their job and held up their end of the bargain.

I am not sure how they were able to gash the defensive front so well but the fact is the defense kept yet another team out of the end zone and played well enough to win this game.

Where They Stand

The Gators still have everything to play for. I am an optimist and predicted 10-2 or 11-1 regular season at the beginning this year. They should do that. I think the Gators are better than any team on their schedule, but my reason for thinking a loss or two was simply because of the difficulty of playing well for 12 games. That came to fruition Saturday night when one got away. They need to keep from imploding like they did and barring excessive and huge turnovers, the defense can carry them while the offense plugs away and scores on a fairly regular basis.

There is no shame in going into a place like Auburn, who was highly ranked, and playing hard only to come out losing. No one can fault any effort all the way around.

The Gators will be able to use this off week and rest up, regroup, and refocus to the real task at hand. That task is reaching the SEC Championship. That hasn’t been done since 2000 and will be welcomed with open arms by all Gator fans.

What’s Next

The Gators take on the hated Georgia Bulldogs in two weeks. Imagine being Georgia, who just lost at home to Vanderbilt (well actually UF almost did last year). Still, the Bulldogs are reeling and wet ofer in October against the two Tennessee teams in the conference.

Georgia will provide a good test defensively. Up front they are big and fast, they really get after the quarterback. Their linebackers are strong an also fast. They can be had in the secondary but the Gators need to stay away from their safeties.

On offense, they have never gotten an identity this season. The fight between the senior and freshman quarterback will continue all season and they don’t have many threats at receiver. Their running game is comprised of three strong backs with a relatively poor offensive line. This should be a great match up for the Gators.