Georgia Review / Vanderbilt Preview

 It was “get well” time for the Florida Gators, as they put together their most complete team effort this season in neutering the Puppies — again!  17 out of 20 now, as the “trail of tears” from Jacksonville back to Athens has become a well-worn route.  After 2 weeks of sloppy play, turnovers, poor play-calling, media scrutiny, and soul-searching, perhaps it’s time for this year’s team to finally start having fun again and put together a strong stretch run to Atlanta.
It was long-overdue to see the Gator offense finally break some keys by throwing more on 1st down, hitting the edges more instead of stubbornly running between the tackles into 8- and 9-man defenses, and taking shots to the end zone from outside the 20.  Georgia’s weakness at defensive end set up most of the offensive game plan, and the players executed it well.  Tebow looked more comfortable throwing the ball in rhythm downfield this game, and the O-Line showed some improvement in pass protection.  Riley Cooper continues to show what a great athlete he is, both with his great one-handed TD catch and his continued excellence in downfield blocking.  This needs to be more of the norm rather than the exception the rest of the season to establish momentum building up to the SEC Championship Game, which Florida has clinched a berth in.  Finally, how poetic that Tebow’s 50th rushing TD, the all-time mark in the SEC to break Herschel Walker’s record, came against the Puppies themselves.  Just one more dagger in their hearts as they sink further behind Florida.
The defense was solid again.  I was a little disappointed in the rushing yards allowed between the tackles, but Georgia did have 2 weeks to prepare, and shuffled their entire O-Line personnel around to their advantage in the running game,  However, the Gators had a distinct advantage with their pass rush, and it really showed in the second half as they got multiple sacks and 3 of their 4 interceptions — all from the LBs.  AJ Jones has really started to perform this year at a high level, and has to be the biggest surprise on defense this season.  It was nice to see Brandon Spikes getting close to 100% health, as he made his presence known with 11 tackles and the interception return for the final score of the game.  I was also surprised it took so long for the safeties to come up and start to take away the seam route to the TE and the 15-18 yard square-ins that were really the only pass plays Georgia had success with.  Once Major Wright laid the wood the AJ Green, though, that took him out of the game and essentially ended any consistent threat from the Puppies.
Vanderbilt is up next for the Gators.  Despite the step down in talent level from the opponent, there needs to be no let up in intensity and execution.  It’s getting closer to money time now, and a tough road game at South Carolina follows.  The Commodores have taken a step back from their performance the past few years, and simply do not have the depth or playmakers to stay with Florida for more than 1-2 quarters.  It will be interesting to see if Coach Addazio continues to mix things up on offense, or goes back into a shell somewhat and be painfully conservative to ensure a win.  I think it would serve the offense best to continue to build on the scheme used against Georgia in order to establish a consistent rhythm and more confidence in the passing game.
This staff is too good, and the players too mature and experienced, in order to have a real letdown this week.  The bigger prizes are starting to come into view, and it’s time to build some real momentum to finish the regular season and peak in Atlanta.
Florida 38        Vanderbilt 10

Mississippi St. Review / Georgia Preview

Survive and advance.  Unfortunately, given the terrible red-zone performance of the Gator offense this year, that’s the mantra the rest of the way, unless major changes occur.  There are serious rumblings out of Gainesville this week that some changes may actually start to happen, including perhaps Carl Johnson moving back to LG, and an entire re-think of red zone play calling.  The offensive staff is simply not giving the players the best chance to win, and that’s completely on them.

When you see Tim Tebow show that much frustration to Coach Meyer, and the lack of smiles and fun had by the team, than there is something seriously wrong.  I’m sure Tim is pressing, and the constant attention and sniping from everyone across the country has to wear on young kids like this.  Being a defending champion is tough — being the Florida Gators, with Tim Tebow and so many returning starters, has to be incredibly tough.  Just look at how poorly Arkansas played against Ole Miss — think they didn’t give the Gators their best shot?

There are no real complaints about the offensive performance between the 20s.  Chris Rainey was very solid, Aaron Hernandez is money, and Riley Cooper made some nice catches over the middle.  You have to make defenses pay if they are going to crowd the box and run blitz constantly.  The pass protection is still a major concern, though.  Mike Pouncey was beaten badly a few times, and Carl Johnson does not have the foot speed to handle speed rushers.  The loss of Matt Patchan really hurts at LT.

The Florida defense again led the way, allowing zero offensive touchdowns.  They did a great job in limiting the effectiveness of Dixon in the running game, meaning MSU had zero chance of any consistent success.  Dunlap and Cunningham seem to be ramping up the pass rush, and Terron Sanders is playing the best football of his career at DT.  Once again the LB corps handled the loss of Spikes almost seamlessly. 

Now it’s on to Jacksonville to play a desperate Georgia team.  The Puppies have beaten Florida the first 2 times the Gators were defending a National Championship, and have had a week off to prepare to try and save their season.

The Puppy offense has shown flashes of big-play ability all year.  AJ Green is the one true playmaker in their offense at WR, and commands attention anywhere.  Orson Charles has hit some big gains on the seam route at the TE position.  The real surprise is why their running game has struggled so much.  Even with the loss of Knowshon Moreno, they have talent at RB in Samuels, King, and Ealey.  The performance of their OL has been the main culprit, and their level of play has to improve dramatically to have any chance of scoring on the Gators.  Joe Cox can make plays, but only with time to throw and by scheme — he does not have the physical tools like Matt Stafford to make plays when things start to break down, and the hope is that the Florida defense breaks the entire Puppy offense — in two.

Georgia’s defense has been maligned since game one, and defensive coordinator Willie Martinez seems to be ‘Dead Coach Walking’ right now.  Little pass rush and poor DE play, spotty play from the LBs (except all-SEC performer Rennie Curran), and shockingly inconsistent play from their secondary, who made Tennessee’s Jonathan Crompton look like Peyton Manning 2 weeks ago.  They may be fired-up early against Florida, but a crushing running drive or an actual big pass play could shatter what little confidence they may have right away.

It’s been an interesting week in Gainesville getting ready for this big game.  I still have confidence that the staff will correct some things, and that the players realize that they have made some uncharacteristic mistakes, including Tebow.  Tim needs to throw more passes on-time, and take some swing passes earlier.  Plus, the main thing to correct is fumbling the ball — ball security is key in Coach Meyer’s Plan to Win, and he has to be dying inside after the past 2 weeks.  Even the special teams can improve.  The kickoff coverage has shown some cracks recently (partly due to poor kicks from Sturgis), and Brandon James is simply not himself.  I think the added responsibility of more offensive snaps is wearing him down some physically, as he doesn’t look nearly as explosive as past seasons.

Despite the extra week to prepare, a confidence-shaking loss like the one to the Vollies could be too much for Georgia to overcome.  The Puppies are hurting not just from last year’s beatdown at the hands of Florida, but from the recent collapses against LSU and Tennessee.  Yes, Florida’s offense is making even mediocre defenses look good right now, but I have to go with the matchups at QB (Tebow vs. Cox), defensive coordinator (Strong vs. Martinez), Head Coach (Meyer vs. Pricht), and Florida’s across-the-board superiority in talent level and leadership.  Maybe this week is when the Gators turn it on for a run to Atlanta.

Prediction – Florida 23        Georgia 20

Arkansas Review / Mississippi St. Preview

Lipstick on a Pig

Somehow the Gators were able to overcome a litany of errors (4 lost fumbles, 6 sacks allowed, 2 long pass plays allowed) to outlast the Razorbacks.  That game was a testament to the senior leadership on this team and it’s mental toughness, because those circumstances are rarely overcome, even by great teams.

There are so many areas that need work.  The offensive line was surprisingly ineffective, allowing consistent pressure on Tebow all day.  Ball security (or lack thereof) was shocking.  The red zone conversion rate is terrible.  Coach Addazio, along with the entire offensive staff, have to start putting the players in a better position to be successful.  Tebow needs to start taking the swing passes to the RBs more often — that is available often during a game, and the biggest disappointment is that he only occasionally looks for it.  Opponent defenses have little respect for the Florida passing game right now, and will continue to crowd the box and run blitz regularly until the Gator offense starts using the entire field.

Unfortunately, with the injury to Matt Patchan it appears that Carl Johnson will stay out at LT, instead of moving to LG, where he is dominant.  I was hoping that the staff would give Xavier Nixon some snaps at LT and move Johnson inside, but they simply don’t work that way.  When Johnson became the starter at LG in 2008, the inside blitzers coming free stopped, and the running game really came alive.

Congratulations are in order to Caleb Sturgis, who shook off an early miss and made the winning kick.  I loved how he was gesturing to his teammates to not get overly excited and cause a celebration penalty after the kick — smart football.

Florida’s defense actually played pretty well, but started to show some cracks in terms of allowing big plays.  Too many missed tackles on some running plays hurt, and it’s not the first time this year, which is surprising given the maturity of this group.  Janoris Jenkins has to stop peeking in the backfield and sticking with his man downfield.  His excellent performance, even as a true freshman, has spoiled us, and I’m sure he’ll be coached up.  Credit must be given, though, to allowing the Razorbacks only a 2-for-11 3rd down conversion rate, and holding Ryan Mallett to a completion rate under 50%.  Bobby Petrino has a strong offense and some future NFL playmakers, and those are stats the Gator defense can be especially proud of.

The injuries are starting to pile up on the defensive side of the ball, and it’s beginning to get very serious.  No Trattou, Howard, or Marsh on the D-Line this week.  Trattou has an injury to his biceps tendon, and that really worries me.  That’s an injury, even if not serious, that can linger the rest of the season, and his effectiveness may be limited until 2010.  Marsh’s ankle injury was more serious than let on, as he had torn ligaments that simply have not come around — it appears he may be done for the season.  I hoped Howard would be back this week, but for Meyer to come out so early in the week with a definitive statement that he’s out, puts an end to that.  Spikes has 2 injuries to deal with — the lingering Achilles tendonitis, and now a groin strain.  His presence was obviously missed against Arkansas’ running game, and I hope the staff can sit him out this week to get ready for bigger games to come.

Now it’s on to aptly-named Starkville, and Mississippi State.  It’s hard to believe that Florida’s last win there was back in 1985, but the Gators have simply played some terrible games there, both under Spurrier and Zook.  Dan Mullen has to be excited to get his first crack at his former boss, and can plainly see that the Florida offense is nowhere near it’s previous effectiveness.  I’m sure his knowledge of Florida’s personnel will lead to occasional matchup issues, and I expect to see everything in the playbook.  What I hope I don’t see is 20+ carries from Anthony Dixon.  That guy is a load, and it would mean the Bulldogs are having some success running against a depleted Gator D-Line, and that the Gator offense hasn’t scored enough points to make MSU one-dimensional.

MSU simply has very few playmakers on offense.  The QB play has been below average, and only Chad Bumphis has elite ability at WR, but he’s only a true freshman.  The fact that their offense ranks in the middle of the SEC standings, though, is a testament to Mullen’s maturing as a play-caller.  He has shown development as a coach, and has given the Bulldog fans some real hope that some winning seasons and bowl games are in the future.

Defensively, MSU has it’s usual solid unit.  Their front seven is solid against the run, but hasn’t been challenged like they will be Saturday.  Their weakness is in the secondary, as their pass coverage should (hopefully) be exposed by the Gators.  Deonte Thompson, if fully healed, should be able to build on his big play against Arkansas.  Cooper has been steady and is showing a knack for getting clutch first downs.  Aaron Hernandez is simply the best TE in the SEC, and no defense matches up with his receiving skills.

It may finally be time for the Gator offense to start helping out the defense a little, until they can get some of the injured players back.

Prediction – Florida 31      MSU 10

L$U Review / Arkansas Preview

 Back to the Future
It looks like Urban Meyer is channeling old-school SEC football for this season, along with shades of the closer games from 2006.  The staff decided to play it extra safe with Tim Tebow, and rely on a dominant defense that was never really threatened by LSU.  Florida sucked the life out of the Tigers and their fans on the very first offensive drive of the game, and were in control throughout.
The Gator OL controlled the LOS from the start, especially on the straight dive play.  That was very important, as the read option was pretty much ruled out to protect Tebow from extra hits, and had to be successful to set up the controlled passing game.  It was obvious that Tebow had missed most of 2 weeks of practice, as his passing accuracy wasn’t as sharp, and he missed some easy throws, including a sure TD pass to Aaron Hernandez on the opening drive of the 3rd quarter.  Hernandez has to be an All-American candidate, as he is a great blocker, can get downfield on passing routes, and receive the inside shovel pass — a complete player.
Of course, the real heroes were the offensive linemen.  Those guys knew going in that their performance would dictate the entire game plan, and on top of that Tebow would be limited in what he did.  That’s a lot of pressure to be under, especially on the road in a place like Tiger Stadium, and they performed admirably.  Running so many dive plays against a tough defense is big-boy football, and to have the success they did is a real confidence boost for the entire offense and the coaching staff.
It was good to see Jeff Demps and Emmanuel Moody run so hard and effectively.  Maybe Moody has finally earned more carries and confidence from the staff — we’ll see in the coming weeks.
The Gator defense completely shut down LSU’s offense all night.  Their one scoring drive was set up by 2 dubious personal foul calls on consecutive plays, and even then they kept the Tigers out of the end zone.  It appeared that the “Joker” package with 3 down linemen, and other rushers/blitzers from alternating positions, confused Jordan Jefferson and their OL all night.  The Florida DL was able to apply pressure off the edges, and the DTs did a nice job of controlling the inside running game of Charles Scott.  Coach Strong did a good job of scheming coverage, because I was concerned about the Tiger WRs having a big night downfield, but they only hit one long crossing route the entire game.
This week’s game against Arkansas will be a challenge.  Bobby Petrino has a legitimate QB in Ryan Mallett, and his passing scheme utilizes all of the skill players and the entire field.  This will be the biggest regular-season challenge to the Gator back seven, and they had better be ready to cover one-on-one.  The key will be the Gator DL being able to get pressure on the QB without too much help from the LBs or secondary on blitzes.  Allowing Mallett time to set his feet and throw comfortably will lead to a long day for the defense.  RB Michael Smith is a threat as well, and provides good balance to the Razorback attack.
Conversely, the formula that has worked so well so far this season for Florida’s offense is especially important this week.  A successful running game keeps Arkansas’ offense on the sideline and shortens the game.  However, the Gators have surprisingly struggled in the red zone so far, and that has to improve against better offenses, as FGs will get your team beat if the defense has an off-day.  The continued struggles of and/or reluctance to utilize the downfield passing game is becoming a legitimate concern as the season is at the halfway point.  The pass protection has only been so-so to date, and hopefully Tebow being back into the regular practice schedule sharpens up the pass offense starting this week.
Arkansas comes in a more confident team, coming off of 2 straight wins, including a big win last week against undefeated Auburn.  Make no mistake — their offense is good enough to win this game.  The Gator defense faces it’s biggest challenge of the year so far.  The Florida offense has to continue to control the LOS, and the Swamp crowd needs to do it’s part to disrupt the Razorback offense.  This game requires another complete team effort.  Fortunately, it’s apparent that the coaching staff has complete confidence in the leadership and professionalism of this team that they will prepare well and execute the game plan.  The usual bugaboo about losing at least once to a SEC West opponent each season still hangs out there.  The 22-point spread seems a little high to me as well.  Great respect for the Gators, but the offensive performance hasn’t backed it up so far.
Prediction Florida 31        Arkansas 20