2008 Gators Must Find Toughness Again

I’m not sure why, but this afternoon I decided to put on my recording of the 2007 BCS Championship Game between Florida and Ohio State. I haven’t watched it in quite some time, and I guess I wanted something happy (for me) to watch on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

As I watched Ted Ginn sprint down the sideline on the opening kickoff, I remembered how sick to my stomach the play made me feel the first time around. At the time my head said Ohio State would win but my heart said Florida would win, and that return was an arrow right into my heart.

In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. It made the Buckeyes relax even more and Ginn’s teammates wrecked his ankle in the celebration after. Not that Ginn being healthy would have changed the outcome of the game, but his game breaking ability could have turned momentum at times to make the final margin closer.

The Gator offense, and particularly Chris Leak, played a part in overcoming the blow of that return, but it wasn’t everything. It was helped out by Ohio State penalties, a favorable spot on a third down, and a couple close calls that went the Gators’ way.

The most important thing was Florida’s defense shutting down the vaunted Buckeye offense. The Gator defense dominated the Buckeye offense more than the Gator offense dominated the Buckeye defense. The one series that Ohio State scored on was aided by a personal foul penalty by Brandon Siler, and the drive ended up amounting to only about 40 yards of offensive gain.

While Florida’s offense took what the defense gave it by simply exploiting holes in the zone, Florida’s defense made all the difference through its tough, intimidating play.

While pondering these things, it struck me that we saw something similar last season. Georgia’s on-field celebration ignited their team and infuriated the Gators. Like in the title game, the Florida offense did its part by marching right back down the field and evening the score.

However, instead of dominating, the Gator defense allowed the Bulldogs to head down the field the other way and score again.

Florida would end up taking a 17-14 first-half lead over Georgia, but it was never safe since the Bulldog offense was able to push the Gator defense around. Florida’s offense also wasn’t able to be as physical as it wanted to be since Tim Tebow’s shoulder was injured, preventing him from being his usual self.

Another parallel I saw had to do with fourth downs. The dagger to the heart of Ohio State was when Jim Tressel uncharacteristically went for it on fourth down deep in his own territory and Florida stuffed the rush attempt.

However in 2007, LSU had no trouble converting fourth downs on the Gators. Had Florida stopped any one of them, they easily could have won the game and thanks to the SEC’s tiebreakers gone on to the conference championship game.

The players on the 2008 Gator defense will be bigger and stronger than they were last year, but that alone won’t be enough to put Florida over the top. They will have to learn to exude that toughness that the 2006 defense did to make the Gators legit national title contenders. They had it in spots last year – most notably with Derrick Harvey, Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe, and Major Wright – but it has to come from everyone.

Urban Meyer himself said that last offseason the players didn’t work as hard as they did in the spring and summer of 2006. It’s understandable since most of the team was young and knew nothing but success. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but the coaches have said that it’s not been an issue this year. I certainly hope it hasn’t.

Now, because the defense is so young, it won’t have a chance to be as good as the ‘06 defense was until at least 2009. It will be better though, because the players are just too talented not to be. However, if it can find that spirit of toughness, it will become better than the sum of its parts and allow the Gators to fulfill their rapidly escalating preseason expectations.

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