The Offense

October 30, 2006

Okay, enough of being a homer. Let’s face it – Florida is somewhat fortunate to be 7-1 with an offense that sometimes lacks cohesion, and absolutely lucky to be ranked 4th in the BCS under those circumstances. Every week it’s something different; sometimes the scheme is good but the execution is not there, other times the execution is pretty good but the scheme is puzzling at best. In the case of the Georgia game, both execution and scheme were bad.

In some ways, it seems like the coaches get stuck up on things that are good in theory rather than focusing on what goes on in the games. For instance, they are very big on getting players “touches.” I’ve always hated that term because it subtly implies that a player will excel simply by placing his hands on the ball. Just get this guy X number of touches per game, and things will be great. A case in point was the one play the coaches ran for Jarred Fayson on Saturday. He came in on one play and had a pass underthrown to him, as if the coaches suddenly thought “Oh no, we need to get Fayson a couple of touches this game,” and threw him in to catch a screen. He then disappeared for the rest of the game.

I prefer more of a basketball style approach – find the open man, and feed the hot hand. Just run good plays and let the fourth-year starter at quarterback decide who gets the ball. It’s like Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen are micromanaging the offense rather than letting it flow. There’s more to it than throwing either the occasion deep bomb to placate the fans and sideways screen passes. Georgia played a lot of zone, and as anyone who knows football well knows, you attack the zone with someone, usually the tight end, going over the middle. Andre Caldwell got his 40-yard touchdown doing just that. Why they didn’t “feed the hot hand” by going back over the middle in the 10 – 15 yard range is beyond me.

Part of micromanaging also is overthinking things. According to a quote from Meyer in today’s Alligator, it took DeShawn Wynn getting in Meyer’s face in the third quarter in order to get him carries. Urban said that did change his mind. Why he decided in the first place that a guy who ran for more than 100 yards on Tennessee was not fit for carries against Georgia raises plenty questions. Meyer spent some of his post game comments talking about how displeased he is with the drop back passing game since Chris Leak doesn’t get enough protection. I would think that using Wynn early to open up the pass would be a good way to buy Leak more time. I’m not advocating the Auburn game offense of Wynn up the middle nearly ever down, but Wynn is a better option between the tackles than Percy Harvin is (and yes, they did run Harvin up the middle in the first quarter). It’s about balance.

Now, part of the offensive struggles may have had to do with Leak and his not-concussion/headache/whatever it was that plagued him from late in the second quarter. Urban said Leak used three unnecessary timeouts after getting a particularly bad hit. It also seemed that some of the penalties could have come from miscommunications dealing with that. I don’t know, but I do know that the penalties need to stop. They kill momentum and disrupt the offensive game plan. Turning third-and-shorts into third-and-longs has been a specialty for the Gators this year, and they will not beat Auburn or Arkansas in the SEC title game if they get penalized as much in that game as they have all season.

One interesting thing I gathered from the morning and midday talk shows today is that there is somewhat of a Tim Tebow backlash starting up. I never thought I’d even get a hint of that this year, but it’s starting. I think his key fumble that led to a Georgia touchdown and his general ineffectiveness (aside from a couple of plays) has reminded people that he is fact a freshman and that he is not Superman. The St. Timothy image I talked about early in the season is fading. Some complain that using Tebow disrupts Leak’s rhythm and that the switching of quarterbacks leads to some of the false start penalties. They decide that for those reasons, Tebow may be better off left on the bench, almost that he’s more trouble than he’s worth now that defenses know that he’s going to run off-tackle left nearly every time.

I think that’s a fascinating development. Even the hits for this site from people searching for Tebow’s name have fallen off and nearly disappeared in the past three days. I think people are realizing that Tebow cannot yet run the offense, that trying to run two different offenses concurrently won’t always work, and that Chris Leak really is the best option for winning this year after all. Now, all it probably will take is a 30-yard run against Vanderbilt for the Tebow madness to start again, but for now there are at least a few fans who are deciding that picking Chris Leak as the quarterback and sticking with him is the best option for success.

It also may be that, just like with Leak and th booing nonsense earlier in the season, that they are not upset with Tebow as much as they are with the coaching staff. The coaches definitely deserve some criticism after that game since Georgia is clearly rebuilding this year and Florida can be an elite team when it wants to be. That game should not have been close. I wonder if the players slipped back into a Zook-era trademark move of relaxing when they get a big lead. Not only is the Meyer regime trying to get by with players recruited for a different scheme, it also has to deal with the culture of complacency that grew up in Ron Zook’s three years. Losses were bad and “not acceptable,” but there were never any consequences really, since they were “getting better and better every week.”

Do not get me wrong here, I am not blaming Ron Zook for anything. His direct influence doesn’t pass the limits of Champagne, Illinois these days. However, even Steve Spurrier in his last couple of years tended to whine a lot more than he did when he first started. I do question the mental toughness of Florida football, and that includes the fans too. We were all spoiled in the ’90s, and it seemed like Florida could do whatever it wanted to simply by showing up. The Tennessee loss in 2001 ended for good any thought of that since Spurrier owned Phil Fulmer, the SEC East was on the line, and Florida still lost.

This year, a lot of good fortune and bad turnovers by opponents in critical times has propelled Florida to where it is now. As I mentioned before, Florida has yet to put together a full game, but neither has any of UF’s opponents. Auburn’s second half was the best half of football played against the Gators, and if not for two uncharacteristic and costly turnovers by Chris Leak late, it still might not have been enough to beat the Gators. There is something about this team that is a double-edged sword – it keeps them from playing sharply, but also keeps the opponents from doing so either.

In the end, the Gator defense has been winning the games week in and week out. The front seven has been excellent in stopping the run outside of the Auburn game, and the secondary has getting a lot of big plays (once again, except for the Auburn game) while letting the smaller plays go. Reggie Nelson in particular has saved the secondary many times, at least when the coaches don’t have him playing 30 yards off of the line of scrimmage (just like in – get this – the Auburn game). Florida has the luxury of playing around with all sorts of things on offense since the defense has been so adept at keeping opponents out of the end zone. They haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been tremendous.

So what about this week? It’s just Vandy right? Well, Vanderbilt beat Georgia and has been very well-coached under Bobby Johnson. Using well-coached and Vanderbilt is not a common occurrence, so that should tell you something. Sure, Jay Cutler is gone, but there were plenty of other guys besides Cutler working to take Florida to double overtime in a game that Florida very well could have lost in regulation if not for a suspect celebration penalty on the Commodores. Florida has better size, speed, and talent all over the field, so the Gators should absolutely win.

As we know, though, Vandy doesn’t make things easy for anyone. They played Michigan to a closer final score than Notre Dame did. Florida should win, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

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10:46 pm Saturday night

October 29, 2006

I’m a happy Gator tonight.

It was not the prettiest or the most satisfying win today, but anytime you can return from Jacksonville with a win, you take it. It was a clear, windy day with a slight chill in the air. By the end, just about all Florida fans were wearing jackets or sweatshirts of some kind. The final score, 21-14, did not really reflect how the game went. It’s hard for a score to reflect a game like that.

The Gators were in full control in the first half, finishing with a 14 point lead at halftime. It should have been a larger lead, but Florida kept killing its own drives with penalties, dropped passes, and other execution problems. Both teams played sloppily, which seems to be a hallmark of Gator games this year. Neither team in any of their games has been particularly sharp. I can’t remember the last time a season has been like that.

Anyway, Florida came out and got a touchdown right away to go up 21-0, and it seemed like the game had been put away. Florida’s side of the stadium was rocking, Georgia’s was demoralized, and it seemed an insurmountable lead with a shaky freshman quarterback trying to run the Bulldogs’ offense.

Then a funny thing happened. Florida couldn’t put drives together anymore. The secondary playing so far off of the receivers allowed Matt Stafford to get in a rhythm and comfort zone. Tim Tebow, to the utter shock and disbelief of Florida fans (most of whom refuse to admit that he is just a freshman) fumbled, and then it was a game again.

Fortunately, Florida’s defense tightened up, Florida got a couple of first downs (one only because of a Georgia facemask penalty), and then they were able to take a couple of knees and run the clock out. Shortly after it went final, the public address announcer (who, along with the scoreboard operator, had a really bad game) announced that Oregon State had held on to beat USC. It was a win for Florida, and any win is a good win, but it was not terribly satisfying.

For the second straight week, Florida did not score an offensive point in the second half. Today, the Chris Hetland missed two field goals in UF’s only scoring opportunities after halftime. Urban Meyer definitely adjusted the offense to get Percy Harvin, Andre Caldwell, and Tim Tebow in the game, and all three had mixed results. Caldwell played the best of the three though. The offense did become predictable in a way, and it showed in the second half. He went too far the other way with the offense, and they definitely underused DeShawn Wynn.

There’s give and take with everything, and it’s hard to complain too much when you leave with a win. The intensity for the game was lower than normal before the game, with Georgia fans not giving their team much of a chance. There were plenty of Bulldogs who left before or at halftime as there were small but noticeable amounts of teal in the red and black across the way. Once Georgia got some things going in the second half, they definitely woke up and started to believe until Florida polished off the game in the end.

This was not a typical Florida – Georgia game, but few things are ever normal at this game. The important thing is that UF survived and won, moving to 7-1 overall, 5-1 in the SEC, and to about 7th or 8th in the polls. This was especially important with Southern Cal losing. Florida still needs more help in the national title picture, but they still control the SEC. Now, it’s time to go up to Nashville and take care of Vandy. It won’t be a cakewalk though, as our vanquished opponents today could have told us.


10:35 pm Friday night

October 29, 2006

Well, it’s the night before the big [BEVERAGE REDACTED] party, and we’re safe and sound at the River House. It has started to rain, and it is forecast to continue through tomorrow morning but finish by game time. I’m the only one still up, and the light of my laptop screen is the only in the house right now. It’s so dark out, it’s amazing. You never notice light pollution as much until you’re completely away from it.

The local channel 4 news talked about the Sideline Student Safety Zones, which are an excellent idea for a game like this one. They’re first aid/general aid stations for people who are lost or have had too much to drink (or too many cheeseburgers, if you ask Charlie Weis). They’ve even made it so that underage students who are intoxicated can come and get aid without fear of legal repercussions. With each of the past two years having alcohol-related deaths, it’s a very good idea.

Tomorrow morning we’re going to breakfast at a small Southern place in Georgia for breakfast before heading into the game. The game plan is, as always, to park at the convention center and take the shuttle in to the stadium. It’s apparently a great place to get out of the city and back north up here. There’s really nothing else to add, and I don’t want to keep anyone up with my light pollution here, plus the screen is attracting some little bugs that got in, with it being the only light source.

Tomorrow is going to be a good day.


Florida – Georgia Preview

October 27, 2006

I could not bring myself to write about the Gators yesterday after the piece I posted in the morning. The subject matter is so heavy that I just couldn’t do it.

This year’s Florida – Georgia game is much like those of the past couple of years. One of the teams is playing noticeably lower than expectations, so the game is not getting that much of the national spotlight. I mean, even GameDay is skipping it to cover the Fulmer vs. Spurrier angle in the Tennessee – South Carolina game.

This is still the Florida – Georgia game however, and it means an awful lot to an awful lot of people. The current generation of students does not regard the Bulldogs with the same high level of emotion that most of the alumni do. Since I was 5 years old, Florida has only lost to Georgia twice. The only losses came in 2004, during the same week that Ron Zook got fired, and in 1997, after Florida lost a lot of player to the NFL draft. I don’t remember Vince Dooley and the Dawgs owning Florida.

The game certainly has enough tradition though. It is one of only three neutral site, regular season games that occurs annually along with Oklahoma – Texas and Army – Navy. It even has its own hall of fame. While I will always prefer to watch football in the Swamp more than any other stadium, the atmosphere in Jacksonville is definitely something special.

So what about this year’s game? It seems pretty cut and dry that Florida will win this year. If you ask any UGA fan right now they’ll probably tell you that. I just spent the last day or so in Tampa on another office visit/interview, and one of the people there told me that some Georgia students he knew didn’t even bother trying to get tickets because they think it is a foregone conclusion that they’ll lose. Florida has been playing much, much better over the course of the season, the Gators get all their players back healthy now, and Georgia lost to Vandy and should have lost to Mississippi State.

Some people, most notably Brady Ackerman, have been saying that Gators shouldn’t get overconfident because it’s Georgia and they’ve seen too many things happen in this game over the years to automatically pick Florida easily winning. Well, over the past 16 years, we’ve seen all sorts of things, and it took a coach being fired and a game played so poorly it is sometimes called The Fumble Bowl for Florida to lose. UF has been the best team in the SEC, and they won. Georgia has been the best team in the SEC, and Florida still won. Florida has started a freshman quarterback and still won. Florida has such a psychological edge in this game, it’s hard to understate it.

I think Georgia will probably come out and do something different from what they have done all year and get a surprise touchdown early, since Florida always seems to find a way to fall behind early. Still, Georgia is outmanned in this game, and it will be a significant surprise if Florida loses. Matthew Stafford has done nothing this year to suggest that he can beat a top-five team, and he’ll be under pressure all game from Florida’s defensive line. We will see more of Percy Harvin, Jarred Fayson, and Tim Tebow than we have in recent weeks though, and all three have the ability to add the exciting icing to the already substantial cake of the senior leadership on offense. I also expect Chris Leak to throw for more than 200 yards for the first time since the Kentucky game (yes, it’s been that long).

Urban Meyer is 19-2 when he has had more than a week to prepare for a game. He is undefeated in the state of Florida. As an ESPN.com headline for the game went not too long ago: Death, Taxes, and Florida over Georgia. It’ll be closer than it should be since it’s the Florida – Georgia game, but Florida wins 27 – 10.

One additional note – I’ll be staying north of Jacksonville this weekend in a house my aunt and uncle built less than a mile from the St. Mary’s River. It doesn’t really have Internet access, and maybe not even cable (I haven’t been up there in a while thanks to marching band), so there will be no GameDay column tomorrow. I’m sure you all will survive.


Danny Rolling Dead

October 26, 2006

Those three haunting words headlined the Alligator, the student newspaper, this morning. It finished several days of coverage. For people outside of Gainesville or the UF community, that may not mean much. Around here though, they’re loaded with emotion.

Danny Rolling was a drifter from Louisiana who brutally murdered 5 Florida students in the Fall of 1990. There victims were four females and one male, a former football player. The town plunged into fear an panic. Firearms merchants saw their stocks bought up like they were water and canned goods before a hurricane. People answered their doors with baseball bats or guns in hand.

Rolling originally was arrested for robbing a Winn Dixie grocery store in Ocala, and it was months before he was linked to the Gainesville murders. It is a sad, tragic story, and it left scars that still have not healed. The city of Gainesville had been irrevocably changed.

In Fall of 1990, I was a 5-year-old living in Orlando, so I know nothing of what that time was like. I heard parts of the story over the years, but it was not until I came up here to Gainesville that I understood how big of an impact those murders had on this town. I’ve talked to many people who were here, and their tones change. They shake their heads and subconsciously bristle just at hearing the name “Danny Rolling.” It is something I will never be able to fully understand, since I was not here to experience it.

There were a few protesters in Starke at his execution, but far fewer than normal. Even the student editorials, that in my 3 and a half years have always been anti-death penalty, advocated death for him. He killed for no reason. Some of the victims were just in their first weekend at college, not even having had class yet. They did not know Danny Rolling, and he did not know or care who they were. He did not take their money or possessions. He came, he raped and murdered, and he left. In the time since, he has not once shown remorse either.
At 6:11 pm, on Wednesday, October 25 2006, Danny Rolling stopped breathing. At 6:13, he was pronounced dead. He may be gone now, but his memory will linger in Gainesville for many, many years to come.


So Far This Year

October 25, 2006

Urban Meyer said yesterday that while watching the games this Saturday, he realized that what won teams games was playmakers making plays. This “revelation” of sorts means that Florida will be putting more spread back into the offense rather than a lot of the up-the-middle stuff that they had gotten into the habit of doing this year.

This is good. I have been saying that the “we’ve got to out-tough teams” mindset, while useful, is not what will win games for Florida. Last year, they had to take some of the spread parts out of the offense and go with a  more power scheme since the playmakers were out injured or playing hurt. This year, there’s more playmakers on the team, and none have had serious injuries. It was appropriate to get more conservative then, it is appropriate to get more aggressive now. The two leading rushers for Florida against Auburn were Percy Harvin and Andre Caldwell, and it was frustrating to me at least watching the Gators go away from that kind of play as the game wore on.

 *  *  *

So a lot of people did mid-season report cards, and I didn’t. Partly, it was because I was exceedingly busy at the halfway point, and partly because it didn’t make sense to do it at that point for a number of reasons. It didn’t occur during an off week, and also it was still inside the three-week run of SEC West teams.

The offensive line has been good, but not spectacular. It has led the way for multiple games with a 100-yard rusher, but it was as big a factor in the second-half letdown at Auburn as any unit on the team. The running backs all complement each other when all are healthy. The receivers have been inconsistent in that you don’t know who’s going to step up in a particular game out of the lot of them, but so far someone has in every game except Auburn (note the common thread throughout this). As far as the quarterbacks, I think I’ve beaten that horse enough over the past weeks that I don’t need to rehash it all again right now. The offense gets a B+, since sometimes it was the coaches going too conservative that held them back.

The defense has been great for the most part. The defensive line was hampered by not having Marcus Thomas for three games, but it otherwise has been one of the strongest positions on the field. The linebackers have been great too, though as many have pointed out, they over-pursued everything at Auburn. The coaches have them blitz too much which hampers their effectiveness, but I don’t hold that against them. The secondary has been a paradox. They give up too many yards, and can’t make enough stops. When opposing teams convert on third and more than two, more often than not it’s on a quick screen or slant because the cornerbacks are lined up 5 to 10 yards off the line. I understand that the coaches put them there, but they have too because only Reggie Nelson is a top-tier player back there. If you take away the some of the rather fortunate interceptions they’ve been getting, Florida is not 6-1. Overall they get a B as well, but I don’t know how it can improve that without taking more risks and getting more timely stops.

The special teams has been a mixed bag. At first they couldn’t get convert an extra point on a regular basis, and it took until Game 7 to get a field goal (for a variety of reasons, some not their fault). The return coverage had been decent until Auburn, and the return game still has not scored a touchdown in years. I give them a C, but that may be somewhat generous. There is a lot of room for improvement here.

I may be a bit harsh, but I would give only two teams in the country an A on offense, and that’s Ohio State and West Virginia. I may seem odd that a consensus top-ten team would be B, B, and C on its assessment, but that’s the truth. And, this year, that’s all it takes to be a top-ten team. This Florida team is good compared to a lot of other teams this year, but the 1996 Florida team would destroy this one. The 2006 Florida secondary is too weak, and the offense is too inconsistent.

Still, all they have to do is beat three teams that are inferior to them and they go to Atlanta for the first time since 2000. That’s a good feeling.


Saturday Wrapup

October 21, 2006

Without a Gator game, I found that I didn’t pay as close attention to football today as I thought I would. I guess even I fell victim to the big-game fatigue that the team seemed to in the second half of last week’s game at Auburn. I’m not saying it was nice to have a week off, since I will always prefer to have a Gator game than not to have one, but not having the stress of playing an elite team was nice for a change. So, here’s a few quick hits on the games I thought were interesting today.

–Nebraska really needed to beat Texas today. This was their perfect chance: the weather conditions could best be described as “ghastly,” it was Colt McCoy’s first game outside the state of Texas, the crowd was unbelievably hyped up, and it was their chance to make a big statement, much like Alabama against Florida last year. You just can’t fumble the ball that late in the game. It would have been nice to see Texas fall since the Longhorns’ schedule is pretty weak from here on out.

As a side note, after the game was over, the crowd chanted “Go Big Red!” in appreciation of the team’s effort. Now, I know that most Gator fans (myself included) hate Nebraska for the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, but I think a lot of Gator fans could learn a good lesson from that example.

–Georgia is in serious trouble. A week after losing their homecoming game to Vandy, the Dawgs nearly blew it against Mississippi State at home as well. I suppose now would be a bad time to tell UGA fans that Urban Meyer-coached teams usually play their best coming out of bye weeks and that Meyer has never lost a game played in the state of Florida…

–South Carolina took care of business against Vandy by a more convincing margin than I thought they would. Of course, Vandy trailed by only 4 until six minutes to go in the third quarter before SC scored to widen the margin. The Gamecocks then put another touchdown up in the fourth quarter to make it look more impressive. That’s a typical Vandy game as any. The final score looks pretty good, but you never felt confortable until that last touchdown in the fourth quarter to know that you’ve put it away.

–Notre Dame just is not impressing this year. The Irish won’t lose to UNC or any of the three service academies (unless Air Force brings the same game it did at Tennessee), but they should lose to USC, who was idle today. Incidentally, USC has a great chance to lose to…

–Cal, who nearly got embarassed by Washington today. It’s be one thing if Isaiah Stanback was healthy, but he definitely was out. Ty Willingham has done a great job with UW, which makes you wonder what happened at Notre Dame. Maybe the Fighting Irish fans never really accepted him and pushed him out too early, or maybe the Pac 10 can make any above average coach look like a legend. Heck, it makes Pete Carroll look like a genius, and he was a blithering idiot in the NFL with the Patriots.

–Now that everyone has cooled off on Garrett Wolfe, maybe it’s time for Boise State’s Ian Johnson to be the minor conference guy in the Heisman chatter. He leads the nation with 18 rushing touchdowns, and he’s the best offensive player on a team that’s almost a lock to finish undefeated. He’s projected right now to have more than 1700 yards at the end of the season, so that counts for something too, right? Then again, Darren Sproles rushed for 1900+ yards his senior year at Kansas State and destroyed Oklahoma himself in the Big XII title game, but didn’t even come within striking distance of winning the stiff-armed statue.

–Clemson dispatched Georgia Tech 31-7. Yawn. Was that really worth skipping Texas – Nebraska for, College GameDay? Or were you picking games by weather reports? Also, it seems every week there is an even bigger Borat sign where ever they go. Are people really that amused by a guy talking in a fake accent who ignores all social conventions? Because if they are, then why did The Laidies Man bomb? Not that I liked that movie (it was awful), but I’m just asking.

–Tennessee, despite being the better team by far, nearly blew it against Bama. Sometimes, there really is nothing new under the sun. Today also featured the first touchdown in the series since 2004.

–Miami came thisclose to losing to Duke today. Nothing could have topped that. Yes, Miami was without 13 players who were suspended, but the 2001 Miami team probably could have taken its scout team and beat Duke by two touchdowns. This is one of the great what-could-have-been games, and also fitting punishment to Miami for it’s lenient punishment to its players for last week. People keep calling that a joke, but there’s nothing funny about it.

–Finally, BC beat FSU despite the Seminoles wearing their all-new black uniforms, which looked pretty good as far as FSU uniforms go. Florida has had alternate black uniforms for basketball for years, and the bookstore has been selling black football jerseys that inexplicably have no blue on them at all. In any event, FSU is 4-3 and 2-3 in the ACC. Ten years ago, those would sound preposterous, but anything’s possible at this point as long as Jeff Bowden is running the offense. FSU’s leading rusher for the game? Drew Weatherford, with 10 yards.