We’re now approximately 24 hours removed from the toughest loss for the Gators since the Noles loss last season. Sadly, this one resembled that one in many ways. Like that fateful day last year, the Gators were the better team they simply could not match the intensity of their opponent and that ultimately led to their defeat.
Defensively, they controlled the running game and kept Aaron Murray in the pocket forcing him to try to beat them with his arm which, for 54 minutes, he could not do. It’s a rare day a team holds an opposing offense to 1 for 10 on third down with three turnovers and come out with a loss. Realistically, if not for a highly specious, questionable, some might say biased, but definitely curious defensive holding call against Dominique Easley when he blew up a third down screen pass, Georgia would have been 0-fer on 3rd down.
Offensively, while admittedly they had trouble handling Georgia’s blitz and stunt packages, they actually moved the ball throughout the game. Up until the last Bulldog drive inexplicably extended by a referee call, the Gators offense outplayed the Georgia offense. Except for one thing: they put the ball on the ground. While turnovers definitely ended up costing the Gators the game, upon further review, a closer look reveals the blemishes that had been somewhat covered by the Gators 7-0 start were exposed yesterday.
We’ll start with pass blocking. It’s not just the much maligned offensive line, it’s everyone. This team has shown repeatedly week in and week out that it cannot handle elite edge rushers in this league. That is the one thing that separates this league from the rest of the nation, almost every team has elite, future NFL ends and outside linebackers who can get to the passer. The Gators are surely not the only ones who struggle against these players but I think they struggle more than any of the elite teams in the league which they are supposed to be. The Gator offensive tackles and tight ends are just not talented enough, either in quickness of foot, hand play, or in sheer strength to match up with Jarvis Jones or any of the others like him and it shows.
Another area they struggle is recognizing where the rush is coming from. Too often fans see Driskel sacked or running for his life not because there are too many rushers for the protection but simply because one or two guys in the protection do not see the rushers and they get an open lane to the qb. Simple defensive packages like stunts, delayed rushes, or overloads cause major problems for this team and that made them easy picking for Georgia. It’s not just the lineman, running backs and fullbacks seem to miss too many blocks or “chips” as well and it is a major problem. The passing game is all about rhythm and unaccounted for pass rushers disrupt that timing and shut down drives. Week after week, and we saw it again yesterday, there were open receivers downfield but rather than a big play we say Driskel scrambling or sacked due to breakdowns in protection. Protection issues were directly responsible for a couple of the turnovers yesterday.
Another glaring problem in the passing game is a sheer lack of playmakers in the receiving corps. It’s easy to blame the line or protection or schemes when you see Driskel scrambling, throwing the ball away, or taking a sack, but many times it comes from a lack of options. In this league with the great talent on the defensive lines there is a small window of opportunity to make a play passing the ball before it’s time to throw it away or tuck it and run. Therefore, in order to be successful a team has to have receivers that can get open. Sounds simple enough, but realistically this league is full of talented defensive backs as well. So you need players who are not just talented at running and catching, but who understand coverages , know how to confuse defensive backs, and can find the open spots in coverage. I’m convinced that, other than Jordan Reed, and occasionally Quinton Dunbar these guys are just not very good.
Finally, Jeff Driskel is young. While that is no news flash it is important to consider. After leading 2nd half comebacks on the road against TAMU and Tennessee, we as fans were lulled into thinking Driskel was more mature than he really is. By mature I don’t mean calmness or confidence, I mean knowledge. There is a large learning curve for a quarterback from high school to college and even more so in this league. There’s sophisticated offenses to learn, defensive coverage and rush schemes, technique from throwing to audible to cadence and snap count, and all this at game speed. Game speed from high school to the SEC is like going from go cart racing to NASCAR.
Consider this, Jeff played at a school that had little talent surrounding him where he had to make plays on every play whether with his arm or with his leg. That is not ideal for learning the nuances of dropback passing because you’re using your athleticism more than technique. Additionally, as a military brat he moved around a lot and probably didn’t get near as much top level coaching that some guys get and he didn’t play a ton of football coming into UF. In other words, he started way down the learning curve.
The staff made it clear when they chose Driskel to be the starter that the choice was made due to his athletic ability. That alone is key to understanding that the staff felt going in this team would struggle throwing the ball and they needed the one who could make plays when they were unable to throw it. So it should not be a surprise to anyone they are where they are right now with the passing game.
Finally, I’ve not been one to criticize this coaching staff this season, but I truly believe they dropped the ball this week in one area: they failed to understand the intensity needed to compete successfully in this game. Don’t get me wrong I love this staff. Deep down I think this staff has done a masterful job of coaching these players up, of getting them prepared for this season as well as each game, and of making adjustments in game and at halftime. However, this game is different in one major way, it’s THE rivalry game. I think Muschamp erred greatly in the week leading up to the game trying to stick to the one game mantra. While I understand what he’s trying to instill in the players preaching that each game is one game and each game means the same, rivalry games and THIS rivalry game, in particular, is different. It’s different to the alumni for sure and should be different to the staff and players.
As has been p0inted out repeatedly in the week leading up to the game, Georgia was always the bully on the block stealing the Gators lunch money. Spurrier, having played here and having had his own bitter Georgia memories, understood that this week is different. When he became the head ball coach here he instilled in this program the idea that this week is different. If you can’t get up for this game you don’t belong here. As a result, the Gators only lost once under Spurrier. Urban Meyer when he took over understood this game was a big one and kept up that intensity and never lost to them. Even Zook as bad as he may have seemed to Gator fans kept it up for the Gators.
Muschamp is now 0-2 against the most hated rival and it probably is important that he understands if he wants to have a long career here, no matter what he does with the won-loss record, he might want to circle this one on the calendar each year and have a winning record against Georgia. Losing to Georgia is not acceptable.
That leads us to the one thing that stood out to me the most yesterday: intensity. Football is a game of aggressiveness, intensity, and emotion. Usually when two teams are somewhat evenly matched the more aggressive or intense team wins the game. We saw that yesterday. In every game, but especially in close rivalry games there are a handful of plays that make the difference in the game and usually the more aggressive team makes those plays successfully. The Gat0rs came out flat yesterday and never seemed overcome that lack of intensity. Georgia, on the other hand, seemed aggressive from the start and never lost that edge. It was the difference in the game.
Football being such an intense, emotional game, it is very hard to get up week after week with the same level of intensity needed to compete at a high level. It’s even harder to do that in back to back “big” games. We saw that after the big win against LSU when the Gators were flat against Vanderbilt. They were able to overcome that because they were more talented than Vandy but still could have lost that game. We saw it again when South Carolina came out flat and laid an egg against Florida the week after a big win against LSU. So it should be no surprise that Florida came out flat against Georgia after their big win against South Carolina. Rather than being the aggressors getting all the loose balls like they were against the Gamecocks, they were the ones losing the football and getting hammered by the Bulldogs.
The funny thing is in the week before the game Muschamp explained that they didn’t want the players to peak before the big game when referring to not making this game a big deal, but somebody forgot to tell the players you don’t want to wait til after the game to peak either. All kidding aside, though, the Georgia staff or players did a better job getting them ready for the intensity of the game and that alone was the difference in this one.
So, upon further review, the blemishes that had been masterfully covered up during the Gators surprising 7-0 start were exposed for all to see yesterday against Georgia. Are they as bad as they looked yesterday? Certainly not. They have definite weaknesses that the staff and players will need to address if they want to regroup from this bitter loss. Their goals are still ahead of them they just no longer control their destiny. It’s time to remember the words of the Florida fight song, “in all kinds of weather, we all stick together, for F-L-O-R-I-D-A”