Between the lines – what worked and didn’t

The Florida Gators were fired up Saturday to play a revenge game against SEC foe Alabama. The start of the game wasn’t indicative of the emotion the Gators were feeling, but as the game wore on the intensity reached higher and higher levels. The game finally turned for the more talented Gators. Here are my thoughts on what went right and what went wrong vs. Alabama Saturday.

The game plan going in was a good one in my opinion. Alabama brings the three man front that tends to harass the Meyer style offense and has since his days at Bowling Green. I thought the Gators should go more to a traditional personnel set with a fullback or tight end or both early in the game and that is what they did. They tried to establish the run early and although it wasn’t pretty early, the end result could be attributed back to the way they attacked the game early.

When the Gators really started throwing the ball around the yard, a lot of the play was based on play action. The play action ended up freezing the linebackers and safeties and even corners enough with a fake handoff, so that the receivers would get some cushion. The television replay of one of Jemalle Cornelius’ wheel routes shows how he fakes run blocking by just hesitating letting the cornerback look into the handoff and the flies past the corner for a long pass completion. He did that same exact play with Tim Tebow in the game and had the same result.

“A big part of the game plan was to run the ball right at them early with more traditional set because of their three man line and then play action off of it,” Meyer said Saturday after the game. “The play action opened up a little more for us late in the game.”

The running game used early also opened up the big play for Leak on his 45 yard run. While the Gators were running the ball adequately, they were not getting a consistent big running game on the ground. Yet, many times it was just a matter of one more block or even half block to spring the back. In the case of leak’s run, the half block was provided by the lone back in the backfield, Billy Latsko. After faking the handoff to Latsko, Leak follows him through the hole. Latsko lays a body on the only defender that could reach Leak and he bounced outside for the big gainer. Inevitably, it is like having an extra blocker in the backfield and a numbers problem for the defense and this is one thing a true running threat at the quarterback position can really take advantage of in the Meyer offense.

“It was a beautiful 45 yards,” Meyer said. He did a nice job checking to it and then he did a nice job (running it).”

One pass that has become a staple of the arsenal is the deep corner or sometimes a wheel / fade pass on the sideline. Leak has really hit a lot of those this year and they have come at very opportune times. Jemalle Cornelius has been the biggest benefactor, but he has also hit Dallas Baker on that pass a couple of times.

There are times when Leak really has a firm grasp of what is happening on the football field. Meyer alluded to the Caldwell touchdown, calling it a sight adjustment between the two. Leak recognized it was man coverage and called for a bubble screen. According to Meyer it was something that would not have happened last season.

“We had a sight adjust and they gave us a certain blitz, Bubba and Chris recognized it and he flipped it out to there,” Meyer said. That was an adjustment to a defensive play and we could not have done that last year.”

I thought the pass protection was absolutely beautiful almost all day. There were a ton of plays where no one was close to Leak. The lone sack came from a complete whiff up front by Jim Tartt, but I didn’t notice any real breakdowns caused by a confusing defensive front.

Leaving Reggie Nelson at free safety has really been a good thing for the Gators. We were previously calling him “The Eraser” and now I see even the announcers on national television are picking up on it. That is the real way to describe Nelson. He is able to erase mistakes by others on defense. He is also able to find the ball in the air and make a play on it. Nelson had a 70 yard interception return for a touchdown Saturday and was absolutely in the right position to make a play on the ball even if it was on target. He also hurried to collect a fumbled interception from Ryan Smith which led to a Gator touchdown.

“He’s a great football player,” Meyer said. “You would have to really convince me if there any free safety playing better than number one right now. I think he is at least all-SEC and probably much more than that.”

Ryan Smith almost turned in the trifecta on defense recording two interceptions and narrowly missing the third that would have been an easy seven points. Smith is ultra quick and also has some instincts. Did anyone see shades of Fred weary on his dropped interception?

“Ryan Smith is a very good player,” Meyer said. “He is playing like he did two years ago for it. He studies a lot of film and he enjoys it. He loves playing for the Gators and every once in a while he just says thanks. He’s a great player.”

Along the lines of his play comes the question about giving too much underneath passing to opponents. The bottom line is that the defense is working. They allowed six points to Alabama and seven points to a really good Kentucky offense. They have a shutout and another seven point performance. Save for a trick play against Tennessee the Gators have not allowed more than a touchdown to any offense this season. The thing that is noticeable is when the Gators do get the lead, the opposing offenses have to start taking shots down field and that is when the sacks and the interceptions come into play. Meyer and everyone should be content with the short passing game from opponents as long as the offense does its job.

What Went Wrong

Probably the biggest set back from the offense right now is penalties and the number one culprit is the false start. The offensive line including Tate Casey accounted for three of them yesterday and two of the three resulted in stalled drives on the day. A big stat in my opinion is that the Gators punted four times yesterday. In the four drives that the Gators punted, three of them (two false starts and a delay of game) had a five yard penalty that set them back in the last series of the drive. The Gators punted only one time all day when they didn’t have a penalty in the final series of a drive. Basically, stop the penalties and they move into scoring position.

Chris Leak is a wonderful passer and has uncanny accuracy sometimes. He threw some beautiful balls while on the run yesterday, but there were a few that he just needed to put the brakes on, set his feet and throw. It is hard to do, but his protection was great, especially on the roll outs. If he stops, plants and throws early in the game, he makes the throws early. Later on, he was on target and it didn’t become an issue.

Of course the fumbled snap for a touchdown was a bad play. It was a fluke and the only real issue is that it happened at home with a friendly crowd and the atmosphere will be much tougher in a hostile stadium.

I tallied some numbers to make a big argument about the Gators sleep walking on offense to start games. While the numbers make the argument in a few games, they don’t suggest such a trend in all of the games like I thought. The lone exception is scoring where the scoring for the first quarter in each game has been lower than the average of the other three quarters for the rest of the games. The Gators have yet to score more than one time in the first quarter of any game. This can probably be attributed back to the penalties and getting into the game at the start. I was thinking there might be a correlation with not having the team ready and then the staff and players making great in-game adjustments. That is not the case.

What’s Up Next?

LSU comes to town for homecoming and the Gators will be facing their toughest test yet. The Tigers bring an attitude up front, and personnel wise may be the most talented team the Gators face this year. On defense, they don’t have to blitz a lot with a talented front four. They have a very talented secondary as well.

On offense, this group of receivers will challenge Tennessee’s as the best group the Gators will see all season. The Tigers are very tough up front and Jemarcus Russell is playing smart this season not throwing the ball away. They also have a nice stable of running backs.

The Gator defense should get another chance at sacks as Russell does not move around a lot, much like the Bama quarterback on Saturday. The Gators will have their hands full with deep balls and smash mouth running.

On offense, it will be about protecting the quarterback and getting yards on the ground when they can. Protecting the football will be at a premium playing LSU.