The Difference in Gator Football is All About Pressure

Call me Bernoulli, because today I’m talking pressure differential.

The Florida offense spent much of the first four games struggling to fulfill offseason expectations. It flowed freely against Hawai’i and Tennessee for the most part, but it did not do all that well against Miami and Ole Miss. In fact, the Gators turned it over three times in the loss to Ole Miss, equal to the number of lost turnovers in the rest of their games.

Tim Tebow’s play had a lot to do with it. He was not executing well at the beginning of the year, often slinging medium passes low and overthrowing all his deep balls. Something clicked in the fifth game though; I mean, look at this:

Tim Tebow, Games 1-4
Comp % 60.78%
Pass Yards/Att 7.92
TD/INT 6/0
Rush Yards/Att 2.55
Rush TDs 2
Sacks Taken 6
Tim Tebow, Games 5-8
Comp % 69.33%
Pass Yards/Att 10.15
TD/INT 8/2
Rush Yards/Att 3.13
Rush TDs 6
Sacks Taken 5

That’s a huge difference. Some of it had to do with different play calling, and some of it had to do with the emergence of running threats in Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. Most of it, I’d say, had to do with pressure.

The Guy Who Made the Difference

One substitution made a lot of the difference: putting Carl Johnson at left guard. The coaches were grooming to be a tackle next season, as both starting tackles are fifth-year seniors, but injuries led the coaches to try him out at guard.

Jim Tartt has been injury-plagued, and Marcus Gilbert did not get the job done and eventually also got injured. Johnson stepped in, and it took about three quarters before things fully came together. Once it did though, the difference was dramatic.

You can see the difference in the passing game above. Tebow has only taken one fewer sack in the last four as opposed to the first four, but the timing of those sacks is different. Nearly all of those five sacks in the second four games came when Florida had a 20-point lead or more; in the first four games he was taking sacks when games were very much in doubt still.

The Running Game

Thanks to injuries to Percy Harvin and Emmanuel Moody, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps played a lot in the game against Hawai’i. They did not do a whole lot more in those first four games because Harvin carried the load in games two and four and Moody was the primary back in game three. The re-injury of Moody and the loss to Ole Miss prompted the coaching staff to try out the little guys again.

They instantly made an impact. Running behind the revamped line with Johnson, Rainey and Demps became the first pair of backs to rush for over 100 yards in the same game under Meyer.

It wasn’t that they were suddenly calling a bunch of different plays; Demps’ first big run came on a basic read option play and Demps’ second long run along with Rainey’s 75-yard run came on basic handoffs up the middle. There was no trickeration going on, there simply were holes to run through finally.

Holes were difficult to come by against Miami, Tennessee, and Ole Miss. Florida averaged no more than 3.77 yards per carry against those teams. The Gators relied primarily on rushing against the Vols since they got up big so early in the game, but the inability for the line to create holes against Miami and Ole Miss led UF to pass a lot.

In those games, Florida ran the ball just 43.55% and 47.95% of the time, respectively. The next lowest mix was against Hawai’i, when Florida ran 69.09% of the time. Compare that to when Tebow threw just five passes in the first half against Georgia, for instance, and only 13 times all game. In the last four games, Florida has averaged over 5 yards per carry in three of them and no less than 4.87 yards per carry.

It’s not just than Demps and Rainey have been used more because you can see above that Tebow’s rush average has increased too. Rainey also got as many carries against Tennessee as Moody did and was not as effective as the USC transfer was. On top of that, Tebow and Harvin were the most successful runners against Georgia before Moody took over in garbage time.

The difference in the play calling has been subtle with the extra running threats in the backfield. They use fewer empty sets, although that also has to do with what I will describe later. They run a little more triple option, and they run pass plays for Demps out of the backfield, where Harvin used to be the only one with designed pass plays out of the backfield.

It’s not like the play calling is fully, drastically different than the beginning of the year or last year though. After all, on Florida’s only scoring drive against Georgia that went for more than 56 yards, the most effective plays were either carries or receptions by Percy Harvin and a triple option carry by Tebow. The handoffs to Rainey and Demps never went for more than five yards.

Make no mistake; Rainey and Demps are a big reason why the rushing game has improved. Don’t assume though that they are the only reason. The guys paving the way for all ball carriers have gotten much, much better as the season has gone along.

Defenses

Opposing defenses do have a say in the matter too. No matter how good an offense is, the opposing defenses always play a role in performance.

The two worst games by the Gator offense were the games against Miami and Ole Miss. It should come as no surprise that those were games where the opposing defenses blitzed more than half of the time. Those teams sold out on stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, and they were able to do it. Miami backed off on the blitzing in the fourth quarter though, and we all know what happened then.

Hawai’i was not a good team, but they got a surprisingly large amount of pressure. Which is to say, they actually did get some pressure occasionally. Tennessee chose not to blitz as much, and the Gator offense basically did whatever they wanted to. Arkansas and Georgia also did not blitz over half the time, and the Gator offense did well in those games. I didn’t analyze the LSU or Kentucky games for blitzing patterns since they were such large blowouts and because the UK defense was so banged up, but I don’t remember much pressure being applied in those games.

Part of the difference in blitzing patterns have to do with the philosophy of the opposing defensive coordinators, but the fact is that from the Arkansas game on, Florida did more things to combat blitzes. Johnson being in helped for sure. Keeping a running back in more often (as alluded to above) helped too. Beginning games with quick passes, running more standard instead of read option, and rolling the quarterback out all contributed as well.

With more blitz-busting techniques being employed, the incentive for defenses to blitz lessened. Without them blitzing as much, the offense could run longer pass plays more effectively since Tebow had time to throw. He had more time to work through his progressions as well. The real threat of passing opened up the run more, which opened up the pass more, and it became a positive feedback loop.

The Rest of the Season

It will be interesting to see how things go from here on out. Meyer seemed pleased with Moody at the end of the Georgia game, so he may see more meaningful carries. Florida has often had issues winning comfortably in Nashville, and you can make the case that South Carolina field the best defense Florida will have faced all year. On top of that, FSU doesn’t look hopeless anymore.

With the Gators in the thick of the BCS race, which is always a beauty contest, there will be pressure on them to keep the big wins coming. I haven’t even mentioned the defense and special teams, which have been giving the offense short fields. I mean, only three of Florida’s seven scoring drives started in UF territory, and two of the others were 56 and 66 yards. Sure it’s up to the offense to convert those to points, but they’ve been a big help.

Ultimately, this could go down as one of the four or five best offenses in Florida history. It certainly didn’t look that way early in the season, but the changes they made to take the pressure off of the quarterback and running game have made all the difference.

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