Urban Meyer likes to say that games are won and lost in the five minutes before and the five minutes after halftime. Florida’s game against Ole Miss was decided in large part thanks to the five minutes after halftime, proving his maxim true.
I went through all of UF’s 71 plays to find out more about the offense’s performance in their first loss of the year and to see what should have been done differently.
Florida had the game mostly under control. The Gators enjoyed a 17-7 lead and had all the momentum. Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt was even visibly frustrated when he came out after halftime. The storyline for the game was following along the same way it had for the previous three games: Florida’s defense was holding its opponent down and the offense was doing enough to get by.
Before the break, 17 of the 33 plays were runs, and Florida scored on three of its six drives. Even Aaron Hernandez’s lost fumble was on a play that was on its way to gaining more than ten yards (before, of course, being called back for illegal formation).
Even so, the offense was not fully clicking. It only had more than two effective plays in a row on the sixth and final drive, when all five of its plays were effective. Prior to that, the Gators could only muster back-to-back effective plays at most before bad execution or a good play by the Rebel defense prevented a play from doing well.
Florida passed a lot more in the second half because the sense of urgency grew. Six of the first eight plays after the break were runs, but only two were effective and two others produced lost fumbles. Most importantly, the fumbles allowed Ole Miss to tie up the game and it gave them a lot of confidence.
From that point on, the Gators ran the ball just seven more times. Five of them were on a touchdown drive (one of which was a scramble on a pass play) and two more were their final two plays of the game.
UF actually had eight distinct and meaningful drives in the second half, a remarkable stat considering that they had only six meaningful drives the whole game against Tennessee. The first two ended due to lost fumbles. The third was torpedoed by a third down penalty and a missed block on the same guy by both Phil Trautwein and Marcus Gilbert.
The fourth drive was done in by a first down sack that was followed by a catch out of bounds and Tebow being hit as he threw. The fifth drive was when the offense finally found a rhythm, making six effective plays in a row despite the linebackers dropping into coverage only once in that span. It ended in a touchdown. The first play of the sixth drive was also effective, but a sack the second play could not be overcome thanks in part to a drop by Carl Moore.
Five of the six plays on the seventh drive were effective, with the other one being an overthrow on a 20-yard fade route. It ended in a touchdown. The final drive of the second half as we know ended because of a failed Tebow smash play, but two more overthrows on first and second down were counter productive.
A Word on the Rebel Defense
Houston Nutt may seem a little crazy from time to time, but he is not stupid. He took a look at Florida’s three games so far. He probably tossed out the Hawai’i game because of the talent differential, and stuck with the Miami and Tennessee games.
Miami blitzed most of the game and held the Florida offense to just a touchdown in the first three quarters. Tennessee dropped its linebackers into coverage most of the game and allowed UF to score on five of its six meaningful drives. You can probably imagine which approach Nutt took.
Ole Miss blitzed much of the game, and most of the rest of the plays the linebackers stayed up close to add pressure. All but one of the times Ole Miss brought a Gator down behind the line of scrimmage came on a blitz.
The Rebels dropped the linebackers into coverage just 17 times. Only one of those times did they get genuine pressure on Tim Tebow. Only four other plays were not effective, and two of those were drops, one was a pass that was caught out of bounds, and the other was a dump off pass on third-and-17. When the linebackers dropped back and gave Tebow plenty of time to throw, Florida moved the ball with ease.
Following the lead of LSU and others, Ole Miss almost universally blitzed the Gators when they went with an empty set, except on third and a mile and late in the fourth quarter. All three of the Rebels’ sacks came against an empty set, and twice a linebacker came through untouched.
Florida’s Play Calling
On the Gator message boards, the people are ready to run offensive coordinator Dan Mullen out of town. To be fair they’ve wanted to do that almost since he arrived 2005, even during the 2006 national championship run and during 2007’s campaign that led the SEC in scoring. Was it as bad as they say?
As I said, the first half scheme matched what had been going on before. No surprises there. Over the three previous weeks some wondered whether the Gators had used the whole playbook, and if when the pressure was on if they could execute when that time came.
Only three of the eight second half drives ended in punts solely because of poor execution. The first two were turnovers of course, and one was bad execution and one was a good play by the defense. That bad execution fumble was on a read option play, however, something Tebow has run thousands of times in games and in practice. It was not related to that extended playbook.
The plays that Florida ran in this game that it didn’t in the previous ones mainly were intermediate to long pass plays. The ones that were quick worked fine. The ones that were not quick ended in sacks or scrambles. It also did not help that Tebow overthrew every pass that had to travel in the air more than about 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Florida actually did pretty well beating the blitz with quick passes over the middle and option plays. Only three throws over the middle didn’t work; two were drops and the third was a low throw. The other 15 short or medium throws over the middle were effective. The read option plays in the center of the line didn’t work very well, but the standard option left or option right plays did a great job at beating the blitz.
The killers were slow developing pass plays from an empty set. All three sacks came on such a scenario, and most of the hurries did too. Thanks to Ole Miss blitzing on nearly all of them, the numbers just didn’t allow that kind of play to do what it was supposed to do.
That’s where I am upset with the play calling. I understand that there’s a need for variety to keep the defense guessing, but there was no reason at all that supported anything other than fast passes from a five-wide set. Ole Miss made its intentions to blitz very clear from the beginning, so those plays should have been scrapped instead of appearing in the second half.
Florida was getting everything it needed on medium-length quick hitters and options. The Rebels couldn’t do a thing to stop Percy Harvin running or catching. Tebow was overthrowing all of his longer passes anyway. Slow developing pass plays from the empty set have been failing against the blitz since the LSU game in 2005. Why they keep getting sent down from the booth in 2008 is beyond me.
The final set of downs was not a failure of play calling, by the way. There were short routes by the sideline that were open on first and second down; Tebow chose to throw to the lone long route both times.
I was fine with the throw to Murphy since it was first down and there was a lot of separation there. The throw to Harvin on second down was not a good decision in any way. The option on third down nearly worked, and on fourth down Florida’s offensive line simply got dominated. The Tebow smash had worked all three other times they used it, so there wasn’t a whole lot of reason to think it wouldn’t the fourth time.
Florida missed Jim Tartt, who went out after the first drive. He is a fifth-year senior and a mauler on the line. Even so, Ole Miss’ front four rarely got much pressure when they weren’t assisted by a blitzer.
The bigger loss was probably Emmanuel Moody, who had three very hard and productive runs before going out. All three of his plays were effective, and he also picked up Florida’s only third down conversion.
Ole Miss didn’t have to make many plays to win. It gained over half of its offensive yards on four plays (two of which were touchdowns) and its three sacks put the Gators in second-and-20, second-and-17, and second-and-19 (all three of which led to punts).
My final diagnosis is that the two turnovers to start the second half did the Gators in. For as flat as they played and for all the big plays that went against them, those turnovers ended up the deciding factor.
They gave the Rebels 10 quick points to tie up the game, and the two teams were basically even from there on out. They were not even in the first half, however, showing that those giveaways by Florida reversed momentum and gave Ole Miss some actual confidence.
Even if Florida punts on those drives instead of fumbling, the Rebels would not have gotten 10 points that fast or probably at all given how the teams were playing at that point. Minus the shot of adrenaline to the Ole Miss sideline, Florida probably would have ground out another nondescript win.
Ultimately, this game leaves plenty to think about and work on for both players and coaches. We’ll find out how much they got from it when LSU comes to Gainesville in two weeks.