While the final score was close to what I had in mind going into the Vanderbilt game, the actual complexion of the game was entirely different. Vanderbilt’s defense played much tougher than I thought, our offense struggled mightily in multiple phases, they hung around and had a chance to tie or win late, and the Gators looked flat on both sides of the ball. The difference in the game was Driskel and the zone read, Vandy couldn’t defend it, and special teams.
This, however, will not be a recap of the game. While thinking about the game afterwards, I was most puzzled by the fact that they continued to not open up the passing game. Coming in I felt sure they would use this game as a tuneup to work on that aspect of the offense that has been lacking the most. After all, the next couple of games are against top ten teams with strong defenses so if they are going to work on it, this would be the game to do it, right? Wrong! So what gives? Why do they continue to be so unbalanced in the run-pass ratio? Why are they still content to run the ball and pass only occasionally?
Well, for starters, the passing game is a work in progress. Jeff Driskel, in only his 6th game “starting” is still green making his reads, seeing the field, and making downfield plays. As a result, he tends to be late on his throws and to be honest it’s really surprising to me that he hasn’t turned the ball over much. It takes time to learn to trust your lineman, it takes time getting the timing down between quarterback and receivers, and it takes time for the game to slow down for a young qb.
There’s two trains of thought with young qb’s. One is to throw them into the fire, let them throw the ball up and down the field to speed their progression but the side effect is turnovers and losses while they learn on the fly. This method would mean you’re willing to sacrifice some wins this year to prepare for next year. The other is to bring him along slowly, give him just enough passing reps to keep defenses honest, rely on the ground game and play tough defense. The downside is it takes much longer for him to get “up to speed”, the upside is it minimizes turnovers, takes the pressure of winning and losing off his shoulders, and it maximizes potential for wins this season. It’s no secret Muschamp is a Saban disciple here and has chosen the latter. Bring Driskel and the passing game along slowly, rely on the running game with Gillislee, take advantage of Driskel’s running skills, play field position football, and lean on that fantastic and talented defense.
That’s exactly what they did in this game. Muschamp mentioned in the post-game interview that Vanderbilt does a lot of stunting which is high risk/reward and while it allowed them to bottle up the inside running of Gillislee it gave up the zone read quarterback keeper and Driskel made them pay setting a single game rushing record for Gator qb’s with 177 yards. The flip side is the passing game still seems to be lagging and is quite obviously the weak link of the offense.
So what gives? Is Driskel just not a very good passer as some message board posters have insinuated? Are the Gator receivers not able to get open or are they devoid of playmakers in the passing game as other’s have suggested. Perhaps Driskel is simply blind and can’t find his receivers and Muschamp and Pease have no faith in the passing game. The reality is a small combination of all of the above but mostly Muschamp is simply playing Saban football. Reduce the amount of pressure on Driskel in terms of the passing game choosing to minimize turnovers, control the clock with a tough inside running game, take what the defense gives, play field position and special team football, and rely on his talented defense.
It may not be sexy, but so far it has been effective, and Gator fans have to admit it has made this season meaningful. Most, if not all of us, had no expectation of starting the season 6-0 and ranked in the top 5. Would anyone realistically be happy if the Gators were throwing the ball all over the field like West Virginia or Texas A&M while turning the ball over, and possibly sitting at 4-2 right now?
It’s fashionable right now to throw the ball up and down the field with spread offenses. Gator fans were spoiled under Spurrier and Meyer/Mullen, enjoying prolific offenses and big scores. That isn’t Muschamp’s Gators. Oddly, in the offseason so many Gator fans were clamoring for Nick Saban and his style. Well, we got it, this is Nick Saban football, enjoy!
And Go Gators!