In honor of Gameday's first appearance of the year in Gainesville, I figured I ought to break a line from the greatest sign I've ever seen during a Gameday telecast. Some may say that it's a bit harsh. I say that dirty Nole has it coming...in spades.
In an effort to keep my Gator columns more enjoyable for most of you, I’m going to try and keep them in some type of format from here on out. I’m hoping that the constraints of organization will force me to pare down my thoughts a bit thus making these posts a little more concise and less like the rambling tangents that often accompany any verbal assessment of the University of Florida’s Football team. With that in mind, I’m going to break down some key components of last week’s game against Alabama and then address those aspects with regard to what they will mean this coming Saturday against LSU.
This unit is far ahead of last year’s offense at this same stage. The line struggled early on against Bama but managed to get going early in the second quarter as they settled into their assignments against Bama’s unorthodox 3-3-5 defense and dominated the line of scrimmage on their way to a 95 yard TD drive. From this point on, the offense began to hit its stride. Their was plenty of time in the passing game and the running game really started to pick up in the second half as Florida’s line began to wear on Bama’s defense while opening up some huge holes for DeShawn Wynn and Kestahn Moore. As the O-Line’s play picked up, Chris Leak and his receivers became steadily more comfortable working against an experienced Alabama secondary, making site adjustments (Caldwell’s TD) and exploiting mismatches in the passing game by using the size of Dallas Baker and the speed of Jemalle Cornelius. While Leak ended up with some impressive stats, he was erratic in the game’s early stages, short hopping a couple of throws and nearly throwing an interception deep in his own territory.
What this means for Saturday:
While Florida’s O-line is a much improved unit, it will have to be even more prepared come Saturday afternoon. LSU’s defense is better and faster than anything the Gator’s have seen thus far. Furthermore, D-Coordinator Bo Pelini is both solid in teaching fundamentals and innovative in his employment of his defensive troops. Florida’s uncertainty in it’s blocking schemes was exposed last year by Pelini, especially in five wide sets. The O-Line will have to be quick and decisive against LSU if Florida is to take advantage of any opportunities afforded to it by the LSU defense. If the O-Line can hold its own against a dominating D-Line it will open up time for Chris Leak and his receivers. Leak will need to avoid staring down his primary receiver against LSU’s experienced and talented secondary. Twice this season, Leak has had sure interceptions deep in his own territory negated by penalty (Tenn.) or drops (Bama). If Leak makes this mistake again, LSU will almost certainly make him pay. Beyond Leak, UF’s receivers are going to have to win their fair share of one-on-one battles if the Gators are to march to victory. LSU frequently employed man coverage last year, virtually daring a Gator receiver to beat them. More often than not, Gator receivers couldn’t make LSU pay for these gambles which left Leak scrambling for his life. Perhaps, the biggest aid to the passing game would be a solid rushing attack. While Florida has rushed far more cromulently thus far this season, Saturday represents a new challenge. With DeShawn Wynn possibly injured (certainly hobbled), the Gators will need increased contributions from the likes of Moore, Tim Tebow, and Billy Latsko (both as a blocker and runner).
While Florida’s defense is currently ranked 4th in the nation in scoring defense, it has not always resembled the dominating unit that one would expect when presented with such a statistic. This was evident against Alabama, as the Gators defense allowed Alabama to move the ball with surprising regularity in between the 20s. However, once the Tide came close to scoring territory, UF’s defense repeatedly came up with the big play or plays needed to fight off Alabama. Whether it was a timely sack (Derrick Harvey) or a crucial pass breakup (Reggie Lewis), the Gators always seemed to come up with the right play at exactly the right time.
While it’s easy to be happy with only allowing 6 offensive points to Alabama, one must be concerned with the relative lack of pressure generated by Florida’s front four. The Gator D clearly misses the push created by Marcus Thomas up the middle. His presence, and the double teams it brought, opened up ends Harvey, Jarvis Moss and Ray McDonald for one-on-one matchups on the outside. Without Thomas, Florida has struggled to consistently generate a pass rush thereby leaving its inexperienced corners to deal with Bama’s receivers on the outside. The results were a number of big gains by Bama receivers in the short to intermediate passing game, due largely to the space being given by the UF secondary in order to avoid giving up the big play over the top.
What this means for Saturday:
LSU has not been able to run the ball with any measure of success thus far this season. Much of this is due to a relatively inexperienced offensive line that is still learning the ropes. The rest of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of tailbacks Alli Broussard and Justin Vincent. Neither back has shown the explosiveness they had prior to their injuries and look tentative in their cuts. This shouldn’t change much this week against Florida. The Gators boast the nation’s #4 rush defense and have consistently forced their opponents to abandon the run game in the second half in an attempt to effectively move the ball.
Of course, LSU has another side of the offensive coin, a devastatingly effective passing game. A passing game that has led to LSU Offensive Coordinator Jimbo Fisher (gotta love the SEC) calling far more pass plays than at any time during JaMarcus Russell’s tenure in Baton Rouge. Russell has responded by lighting up secondaries as few before in Tiger country. While I’m not (and never have been) a huge fan of Russell, one thing he does extremely well is throw the deep ball. He’s done it often this year, and with a large measure of success. With a group of receivers possibly more talented than their counterparts at UF, Russell has a large bevy of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. UF’s D will have to find ways to pressure Russell and force him to check down out of his primary reads. If the green Gator corners are forced to matchup one-on-one with the likes of Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Early Doucet then it could be a very, very long day for the Gator defense. To be effective, the Gators must get pressure on Russell quickly without allowing him to move out of the pocket and create opportunities downfield. While blitzing linebackers up the middle will certainly aid this plan of attack, a push from the middle of UF’s defensive line is crucial against LSU. All of these objectives are attainable, especially against a young and banged up LSU O-line playing in a very hostile environment. It is incumbent upon the members of the Gator D-Line to win their one-on-one battles when they get the chance. Furthermore, Florida must contain LSU’s ground game and make them one dimensional. If LSU can effectively run the ball, Florida’s defense will not be able to put enough pressure on Russell to disrupt the Tigers’ passing game.
I’m not going to spend much time on Florida’s Special Teams, other than to say that they must show marked improvement on Saturday. Other than some excitement courtesy of Brandon James, the Gator Special Teams have been a major disappointment so far this season. Florida will need big days from Chris Hetland (K), Eric Wilbur (P) if they are to come out victorious in this game. Additionally, UF could use a field position boost from return man James on either kickoff or punt return duty with kickoff being more likely, due to the excellence of LSU punter Chris Jackson.
Florida once again stumbled out of the gates against Bama, struggling defensively to get pressure while the offense was only able to top their ineffectiveness moving the ball by coughing up a TD producing fumble. This was symptomatic of most of the Gator’s game this fall. The Gators have trailed during the first half of every game but one (UCF) so far this season and have given up opening TDs to Tennessee, Southern Miss. and Alabama. Both offense and defense seem to sleepwalk through the games first stanza, only awakening when pushed by their opponents.
What this means for Saturday:
Problems, big problems. Florida cannot afford another slow start against LSU. To be successful, UF must come out hitting on all cylinders and energize the home crowd. An early score or turnover could rattle some of the Tigers and lead give Florida the kind of home field advantage that can be so valuable in game as tight as this looks to be. Letting LSu settle in and get comfortbale in the Swamp could have devastating effects on the game's outcome.
Missing In Action:
Florida looks to be without two, and possibly three, of their biggest contributors on Saturday afternoon. Marcus Thomas is out for his third consecutive game and his presence will certainly be missed. With Thomas manning the middle, he creates mismatches along the outside for the rest of the defensive line while also causing a fair amount of havoc in his own right. Another player who may be out for a third game (or fourth if you take out the first 5 minutes against Tenn.) is Percy Harvin. The electric freshman had already become a starter and difference maker for Florida before a high ankle sprain against UT sent him to the sidelines. He is, possibly, Florida’s most dangerous and versatile weapon on offense. Without him, the offense loses some of it’s effectiveness. However, aside from Chris Leak, the absence of no player causes as many problems for the Florida offense as DeShawn Wynn. Wynn started slowly against Bama but really began to hit his stride late in the first half. He continued to heat up early in the second half and looked to be well on his way to a third consecutive 100 yard performance before spraining his ankle midway through the third quarter. The SEC’s fourth leading rusher is the big, bruising back that Florida needs to move the chains and keep defenses off balance.
What this means for Saturday:
As I discussed earlier, the Florida defense will have to find a way to get pressure on Russell without Thomas. If the Gators cannot generate this pressure without employing too many blitzes, I see little chance in Florida pulling out the victory. As for Harvin, I doubt he will be 100% on Saturday. However, his presence on the field will force the defense to adjust its coverage to deal with the threat of him. If able to play, getting Harvin involved early is paramount. Harvin’s early involvement in the offensive scheme will energize the crowd and his teammates while also making the Gator offense much more difficult for LSU to effectively match up with. Now, we come the most concerning absence, DeShawn Wynn. Long lambasted by coaches and fans, Wynn has emerged this year to provide Florida with the primary back it so sorely needed. If Wynn is unable to play on Saturday, it will put further pressure on Kestahn Moore to run with purpose and strength and prove himself a capable SEC tailback. Moore hasn’t had a lot of carries this year, but he’ll have to tote the rock for close 75 yards on Saturday in order to keep LSU’s defense honest. Furthermore, Tim Tebow will have to continue to do be the beastly QB/Gorilla/FB that he’s been all year. Without Wynn, he’ll get even more short yardage carries than he has so far.
Key Players: They’ll be no long narratives here, just a few players on each team that will be especially important to the outcome on Saturday.
Reggie Nelson: RFN has to play a great centerfield against a talented corps of receivers who are sure to test Florida’s corners deep. He may even be used in the nickel slot depending on the situation.
Tim Tebow: Simply put, the Gators can’t win if he doesn’t continue to grind out tough yards on the ground.
Billy Latsko: With Wynn out, the underrated Latsko’s blocking will play an even more vital role for Florida’s offense than it already does. Moore, Markus Manson and Brandon James are not big enough to shake off many tackles at the line. They’ll need Latsko to spring them into the second level. Latsko will also be key in pass protection against Bo Pelini’s blitzes.
Cornelius Ingram/Tate Casey: Florida needs to utilize these two talented and athletic tight ends to relieve pressure off of Leak both as blockers and within the pass game. Using these two in the flat and over the middle should be an especially effective way to attack LSU defense and slow down their blitzes.
LaRon Landry: Reggie Nelson’s counterpart is known as the nation’s best safety. He’ll line up all over the field on Saturday and will be a key component in pass coverage as well as Bo Pelini’s blitz packages.
Chevis Jackson/Jonathan Zenon: LSU two corners will determine much of what the Tigers can throw at Florida. If they can cover Gator receivers effectively, then that will allow Landry to play closer to the line of scrimmage and cause havoc within the Gator backfield. Florida cannot win if these two shutdown the likes of Caldwell, Cornelius and Baker.
Jacob Lester: He’s JaMarcus Russell’s favorite receiver underneath and LSU loves to pass to him out of the backfield on playaction. He routinely picks up 5-10 yards on this play and is LSU's most frequent weapon on short to intermediate third downs. Florida’s linebackers need to be keenly aware of him at all times.
Dwayne Bowe: The big (6’3”), physical Bowe killed UF last year with two crucial third down receptions. The first was a TD over Dee Webb late in the second quarter while the second occurred late in the 4th quarter and virtually sealed the LSU victory as Jospeh Addai scampered into the end zone for the winning TD just two plays later. Both balls were essentially jumpballs that Bowe won against smaller Gator DBs. UF must be physical with Bowe at the line of scrimmage and force him off his routes. Once the ball is in the air, it is imperative upon Gator defenders to play the ball and not Bowe. Reggie Lewis did a great job of this against DJ Hall last week in the fourth quarter. He’ll need to be even better on Saturday.
You’ll get no prediction from me in this space, not this week at least.
Oh yeah, the Cardinals are playing right now. Can they win two in a row?
Finally, since you're likely to be reading this on Friday, here's a good interview with ?uestlove from Playboy, seriously.
(9:42 PM) Update: Marcus Thomas is officially eligible to play against LSU. I literally yelled out loud just now when I read this.