The Monday Morning Quarterback: Florida Gator Football, What We Know and What We Think We Know

The Florida Gators opened their 2013 football season at home in the Swamp yesterday against MAC opponent Toledo walking away with a 24-6 victory. The Gators appeared to be poised to run away with it in the first half as they opened up a 17-3 halftime lead but came out some what flat in the second half allowing the Rockets to hang around long enough to keep fans on edge throughout.

The victory was somewhat workmanlike but certainly better than last season’s opener when they were in a dogfight with MAC opponent Bowling Green right up to the end of the game. The Monday Morning Quarterback feels that the Gators did answer some questions they had coming in but going out there were still many left unanswered. What do we know about this team after one game?

For certain, we know this defense is fast and physical.

After losing the heart of their defense after last season and having a lot of new starters along the line, at linebacker, and at safety, the biggest question was would this defense be able to uphold the standards set last season? After one, game, that answer appears to be yes. In fact, they played much better yesterday than last season’s unit played in it’s season opener.

The line controlled the line of scrimmage completely shutting down Doak Walker Award candidate David Fluellen holding him to 46 yards on 9 carries, 28 of which came on one run. In spite of playing the prolific, up tempo Toledo offense in the high heat and humidity, the Gator defensive line showed no effects of cramping or being out of shape and they completely dominated the experienced Toledo offensive line.

The corners, safeties, and linebackers provided blanket coverage on receivers all day and were quick and sure in their tackling never allowing Toledo receivers and backs to make plays after the catch. Cody Riggs, for one, had a huge game in his first start at free safety. Even without starting corner Loucheiz Purifoy and starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison, this unit saw no dropoff from the devastating unit they were at the end of last season.

This is, of course, one game against a team from the MAC conference, however, with all the weapons and the scheme they employ, the Toledo offense was expected to challenge the revamped Gator defense, but never was able to get into a rhythm. Even in the third quarter, when the Gators extended a couple of Toledo drives with penalties and they were able to rip off a couple of long gains, the Gator defense stiffened and never gave Toledo a realistic sniff of the end zone.

Yes, it was Toledo, and we shouldn’t take too much out of one victory, especially an opener, but The Monday Morning Quarterback believes that holding this offense to 6 points total was a huge statement for the new Gator defense. If teams tend to show their most improvement between games one and two, then this defense may end up being better than last season’s overall. While that remains to be seen, it was a great start for a unit that was one of the biggest question marks for the Gators coming into the season.

What else do we know?

We know the Gators have depth at running back.

Fourth year junior Mack Brown made the first start of his career on Saturday in place of Matt Jones who sat out due to the effects of a viral infection.  He was superb. One of the Gators’ biggest questions this past week was how the running game would perform without Jones. The staff hinted that it might be a running back by committee approach with former walk on Mark Herndon and true freshman Kelvin Taylor and they would go with the “hot hand”. Brown settled that question quickly as he rushed for 39 yards on the Gators first possession including a 23 yard scamper where he broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage setting the Gators up with a first down on the Toledo 11. Brown would later complete the drive with a one yard td plunge, the first time the Gators scored on their opening possession since 2009. Brown would finish the game with 112 yards rushing which included 97 first half yards and two touchdowns.

The Gators showed further promise in the running back depth chart late in the fourth quarter when they consumed the last 6 minutes plus with Herndon and Taylor combining for 75 yards with the drive ending inside the ten yard line as time ran off the clock. Taylor showed vision, balance, and speed reminiscent of his famous father Fred particularly on a 27 yard scamper. Gator fans are salivating at the prospects that these three backs offer. Then you throw in the hard working Herndon and versatile scat back Valdez Showers who had a big game in his own right in his first career offensive action and we have the makings of the deepest and most talented backfield for Florida since Fred Taylor and Eli Williams led the Gators to a national championship.

The Gators may never light up the passing game enough to satisfy their fans spoiled by Steve Spurrier and his fun n gun days, but The Monday Morning Quarterback believes the Gators may finally have the horses to lead the powerful, downhill running game Muschamp has preached since arriving in Gainesville.

What else do we know?

We know the Gators still have penalty problems.

The Gators have consistently been at the bottom of the conference and the nation in penalties and penalty yards, for sure, since Will Muschamp arrived, but seemingly since before Spurrier arrived in 1990. If there is one thing that makes the Monday Morning Quarterback scratch his head, it’s the propensity for penalties and silly mental breakdowns by a team so talented and which practices so hard and preaches so much about it. It’s maddening to coaches and fans alike. How do you solve it? Apparently, that’s tougher to figure out then Einstein’s equations. For sure, penalties serve as almost a turnover for this ground based offense. There is a direct correlation between penalties and lost drives. Spurrier’s teams were the best the Monday Morning Quarterback has ever seen at overcoming silly penalties, but this team is almost dead in the water when they get penalized.

On one drive, a false start turned a third and three or four into third and long and, you guessed it, they did not convert and punted. Another holding call by a wide receiver negated a touchdown run and even though it was a spot foul giving the Gators a first down in the red zone, they still failed to convert. The drive ended in a missed field goal. I’m not quite sure what the reason is for the rash of silly penalties or why they never seem to overcome them, but rest assured, if the Gators wish to contend for an SEC eastern division title, they will have to either clean up the silly penalties or figure out how to overcome them.

That does it for what we know for sure.

What about what we think we know about this team after one game?

We think that Jeff Driskel has improved as a passer and as a leader.

Now some of you might argue that we know this after Driskel’s efficient numbers against Toledo, but the Monday Morning Quarterback would argue that is simply not the case.

Why?

After all he did look good on that first drive efficiently driving the offense to a touchdown. He did hit some big throws, making accurate, catchable passes. He was efficient on the afternoon, particularly in the first half as he finished 10-11 for 101 yards with no picks. However, after that first drive, the offense was rather pedestrian, particularly in the third quarter when the Gators should have been stepping on Toledo’s necks. They came out particularly flat and had a number of three and outs and gave Toledo some hope and the opportunity to get back into the game. Driskel has to understand that he is the leader, sometimes you have to be a cheerleader. You have to be vocal, you have to be up in folks grills getting them fired up and ready to play. You can’t settle for quick three and outs especially in that all important first two minutes and last two minutes of halves. If the offense is flat that is on the qb plain and simple.

Now don’t get me wrong, the Monday Morning Quarterback was impressed with Driskel on Saturday. He was certainly more accurate than last season when receiver’s rarely received a ball where they could catch it and run with it like they did Saturday. He also appeared to be more confident in going through his progressions involving as many players in the passing game as possible. For the record, eight different receiver’s caught passes on Saturday. I’m not sure eight different receiver’s caught passes all last season. Yes, Driskel looked good on Saturday and gave fans and coaches reasons to be optimistic but let’s wait until he passes important tests against tough SEC defenses before we say we know his improvement is for real.

What else do we think we know?

We think that the wide receiver corps is improved and much deeper than last season.

After one game against a young defense that isn’t very talented, the Monday Morning Quarterback believes we saw enough yesterday to believe that this unit is better than the sham they fielded last year. I’m just not sure we know this. Are they all world or All SEC caliber? Probably not. Are they improved? It appears so.

Led by Trey Burton, whose performance was reminiscent of tight end Jordan Reed, last season’s leading receiver and only consistent playermaker, the receiving corps was able to get open consistently, and they caught the ball, and they made plays. Last season it was Jordan Reed and, occasionally, Quinton Dunbar. On Saturday we saw Solomon Patton, relegated to running jet sweeps last season, making catches downfield, true freshman Ahmad Fulwood with his first career catch, and even some backs with catches out of the backfield, Mack Brown, fullback Gideon Ajagbe, and Valdez Showers who filled the role Omarius Hines played last season. This is certainly encouraging for the Gators passing game as the Gators head into the meat of their season, starting this week with a road test at Miami.

However, it was only one game against an inferior opponent and again, there wasn’t enough consistency game-wide to say we know for a fact that this receiving corps has improved across the board.

Finally, we think the offensive line depth and ability has improved dramatically. 

The line had an infusion of talent in the off season with two transfers, Tyler Moore and Max Garcia, as well as juco transfer Trenton Brown. Moore and Garcia had started at their respective FBS schools as true freshman and played at a high level, Brown is massive at 6’8 365 lbs and is said to have amazing quickness and footwork for his size. Even without senior guard Jon Halapio and third year starter Chaz Green, the Gator offensive line played well on Saturday. They repeatedly opened holes in the running game and protected Driskel well too. The couple of sacks given up were a backfield breakdown. The staff moved guys in and out in the heat and there appeared to be no dropoff in play other than the false start call on backup Kyle Koehne which killed a Gator drive.

The Monday Morning Quarterback believes we saw enough to have a strong belief that this offensive line is deeper and more talented than Muschamp’s first two. However, like the others, let’s see how they compete against the big boys in the SEC and when the injury bug starts before we say we know this.

Folks, that’s all for this week. Sorry for the late start on the post and it’s shortness. The Monday Morning Quarterback was delayed by a serious bug that has ravaged my entire household for the last few days. Look for me again on time next week at 8:05 am eastern time for another weekly edition of the Monday Morning Quarterback only at Swamp Music where I give my analysis and opinion of pressing matters involving the Gator football team and program as well as the SEC and the NCAA.

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Florida-Toledo: 5 Things to Look For Postgame Review

Before each game, Swamp Music will post 5 poignant things to look for each week and will take a postgame look back on Sundays. Yesterday the Gators got the victory over a talented and determined Toledo team in a game where the Gators dominated yet allowed Toledo to hang around just enough to keep it interesting.

1) Will Jeff Driskel show the improvement coaches and players have been raving about in the offseason?

If I were grading Driskel’s performance, I’d have to give him a B+ only because of the turnover (fumble) which wasn’t entirely on him but it did show a little bit of tentativeness on his part (he should have tucked it and ran). Overall, he was highly efficient, particularly in the first half where he finished 10-11 for 101 yards. He finished the game 17-22 for 153 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. Even better he looked in command of the offense for the most part and was very accurate, an area he struggled mightily last season. Equally as important, Driskel hit 8 different receivers including 4 for multiple receptions meaning he was able to go through his progressions and involve the entire offense in the passing game. He also was able to make downfield throws and get the ball into receiver’s hands where they were able to make easy catches and run with the football after the catch. It was only one game against a young, inferior defense but his performance was encouraging for Gator fans moving forward. A bigger test will come next week as the Gators hit the road to take on in-state rival the Miami Hurricanes.

2) Who will step up at wide receiver to make plays and become the go-to guy that Driskel can rely on this season?

With Driskel hitting eight different receivers, the answer is very encouraging: there are a number of guys to step up and make plays, but it appears the go-to guy will likely be Trey Burton. With 5 catches for 69 yards, Burton looks like he has improved his abilities in the passing game and was very reminiscent of Jordan Reed yesterday running with the football after the catch and leaping over defenders for extra yardage. A big surprise yesterday in the passing game was Valdez Showers who was converted from defensive back to running back in preseason camp and had four catches for 23 yards. One area offensive coordinator mentioned they would try to do a better job of this season is to get the ball to backs out of the backfield and they accomplished that yesterday with Showers and big fullback Gideon Ajagbe for a touchdown pass on a beautiful red zone play where they cleared out the zone with Burton and another receiver leaving Ajagbe wide open in the flat to walk in for the td. Again, it was one game but the Gator receiver play and game plan was encouraging for fans moving forward.

3) With Matt Jones out, how effective will the running game be?

Matt who? But seriously, folks, We won’t forget about Jones, who is expected back for this week’s game against Miami, but Mack Brown made the most of his opportunity in his first career start. Brown finished with 25 carries for 112 yards, including 97 in the first half and two touchdowns. He showed toughness, good vision, and repeatedly fought through tackles for extra yards including on his 14 yard td run where he pushed through a pile to score. Not bad for a career backup who had barely played and was thought to be in danger of being passed on the depth chart by true freshman phenom Kelvin Taylor coming into fall camp. Most important, Brown was never stopped for a loss nor ever stopped on first contact. Gator fans should be strongly encouraged at how Brown performed yesterday because the Gators now realistically have a great one-two punch at running back. Backups Mark Herndon and Kelvin Taylor also performed well in relief on the Gators last possession as they combined for 75 yards running out the last few minutes of clock time closing out the victory and ending just short of the goal line as time ran out.

4) With a revamped defense, particularly at linebacker and safety, how well will the Gators defense perform against a high powered Toledo offense?

The defense, if I were grading, gets a solid A for it’s suffocating performance yesterday. a couple of big plays kept it from getting an A+. Any questions about this revamped unit’s ability to live up to last season’s standards were certainly answered yesterday. For a game maybe. The defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, the corners were outstanding and the safety play was excellent. Tackling was quick and  sure all game long and they did a great job of bottling up running back David Fluellen and wideout Bernard Reedy. Quarterback Terrance Owens, while not sacked, was harrassed all day into hurried and inaccurate throws. This unit played fast, they played physical and looked every bit as good as last season’s unit was. Again, it was only one game but fans have to be excited at the potential of this defense considering how well they opened up the season.

5) Will the Gators pass rush be improved from it’s average numbers last season?

While lacking in the sacks, the defensive line did do a good job of pressuring the quarterback yesterday. Toledo’s offense utilizes a lot of quick throws and delayed handoffs, as well as quarterback runs so certainly the gameplan was more to contain and collapse the pocket rather than all out trying to get sacks. They were successful as the normally efficient Owens ended under 50% completions for the game (17-38) for only 155 yards with one interception. It was as dominating an effort from a line as one could have hoped for without the sacks. We’ll have to wait at least another week to see if the Gator pass rush can do a better job of producing sacks when they line up against Miami.

Overall, it was an outstanding effort on both sides of the ball outside of the numerous penalties and a lackadaisical third quarter where both units appeared to have lost the edge they played with in the first half. The defense, after giving up a couple of big plays and a couple of drives stiffened to hold Toledo to only two field goals for the game. Considering how potent and experienced this offense is, the defensive effort was outstanding. Offensively, they showed just enough in the passing game to give encouragement that this season will be different from last, and the running game looks solid. The deep and experienced line continually opened holes and gave Driskel time to throw. Next week’s game should show a little more about how good this team actually is and should provide a solid test for the Gators before opening SEC play against Tennessee.