Missouri Review / LSU Preview

Another challenge, and another step forward for the Florida Gators.  Going on the road to face a tough defense with a target on your back for the first time in 3 years is no small task, and the Gators responded with a terrific defensive effort to shut down Missouri, and never allow them any real momentum.  The Gator D-Line was in the backfield all night, getting sacks and lots of pressure on the freshman QB.  The secondary allowed a few plays on the Tiger’s first drive, then settled in and closed the door.  Jalen Tabor recorded his second pick six, while Vernon Hargreaves, Quincy Wilson, and Brian Poole all made life miserable for the WRs.  Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison continue to fly around at LB and clean up plays.  This was the first time Missouri was held without a TD at home in 10 seasons – a nice way to send the message that the past 2 seasons are the exception, not the rule.

The start of the game was everything you could hope for, as the offense put together 2 long scoring drives to quiet the crowd and give the defense the leverage it needed to crush Mizzou – finally getting some payback for the past two dreadful games against them.  The O-Line did a solid job of opening enough running lanes to allow Kelvin Taylor to gash the Tigers early, and take pressure off of Will Grier and the passing game.  Again, that’s been the formula for success this season – establishing just enough running game and balance to give the passing game the chance to make some plays.

After the first quarter, the rest of the game became the ugly affair I thought it might be – 2 strong defenses making things difficult on two offenses still searching for their identity.  Fortunately, Florida’s offense was led by the better QB and a game plan that was good enough.  Once the Gators took the lead, it appeared the staff was content to play things very safe and allow the defense to choke the life out of the Tigers – which they did to great effect.

So much for the good news……

Instead of a Saturday night showdown with LSU in Death Valley between two Top 10 teams preparing to rumble, all the talk is about Florida losing Will Grier for the rest of the season due to an NCAA suspension for violating the PED rules.  Apparently he failed a drug test by taking a supplement that contained a banned substance.  Grier fell on his sword and admitted he didn’t tell the nutritional staff about it so it could be vetted, and now he’s paying a terrible price.  Discussing Grier’s decision-making and it’s ramifications on this will have to wait for another time, as that is an entire subject of it’s own.

What a bitter pill to swallow after a magical run so far.

I am confident that the coaching staff will handle things as well as possible in getting the team ready.  But there is a dearth of upperclassmen leadership on this team, and this could have a devastating effect if the offense struggles like it did last year.  Treon Harris is the default starter now, and has to find a way to shake off the disappointment of losing the starting job and lead the offense.  Unfortunately there’s no time for a slow acclimation, as I can already smell the corn dogs in the parking lot outside Tiger Stadium – those crazed, drunken Cajuns all excited about a night game, against a team that has to be distracted.  This will be another level of intensity that the Gators have not experienced yet, and the coaching staff has another huge challenge ahead in preparing the team to play fast and efficiently, despite the noise and adversity it will face.

Harris hasn’t been the QB during the positive development of the offense the past month.  He is behind in practice reps, and became the backup for a reason – the staff determined Grier was better.  Harris did show occasionally last year he could throw a decent deep ball, but really struggled with short and intermediate throws.  He also simply doesn’t not read coverages as well as Grier.  Look for a painfully-reduced playcall sheet this Saturday, with maybe the occasional surprise schemed up to hopefully make a big play.  The O-Line has struggled in establishing a consistent running game all season, and now defenses will start to crowd the box like the past 2 seasons until Florida proves it can pass downfield effectively with Harris at QB.  Kelvin Taylor is gonna need some Advil, as he will take a lot of punishment going forward trying to keep the offense somewhat balanced.  Jordan Cronkrite is not getting too many touches in a backup role, and Jordan Scarlett is in the doghouse and may not play again this week.  There’s no way Taylor makes it through the rest of the season healthy with his current workload.

It’s time to really try and take advantage of Demarcus Robinson on fade routes, deep balls, and jump balls to try and get a few big plays in the passing game.  The staff needs to get Brandon Powell and Antonio Callaway more involved.  The TEs, led by Jake McGee, have to find a way to get open and help take some pressure off of Harris.  If the running game is stuffed, that really hurts the screen game as well, as the defense will crowd the LOS, daring the Gators to go deep.  Florida has to try and utilize the middle of the field in the passing game to try and loosen up what should be a crowded box to start the game.

The Gator defense will have to play even better than it has going forward…..and that’s saying something.  The real test will be the players not trying to do too much, and overpursuing and taking bad angles on tackles.  That would be death going against LSU’s running game, which is centered around Leonard Fournette, the likely Heisman frontrunner and a once-in-a-generation talent at RB.  He has size, speed, and power, and can even do damage as a receiver.  No matter how the Tigers may scheme up some trick plays or break tendencies early to try for some big plays, their attack will eventually be focused on getting Fournette 25-30 touches.  He’s good enough that even if he is stopped often, he will likely break a long run for a TD no matter how good the defense is.  Of course, the best way to neutralize Fournette is to either have a strong offense of your own that can eat the clock to shorten the game, or get a big early lead to force LSU to try and win with it’s passing game.  That would be a real advantage for Florida, as Brandon Harris is simply not a quality passer, and can make mistakes if forced to make plays on his own.  The Gator secondary can’t sleep on WRs Travin Dural or Malachi Dupree – those guys are very talented and were recruited by every major program.  They just haven’t had the QBs to help them make more big plays than they have so far – I can only hope that continues for another week.

It’s been a wonderful rise back to prominence for Florida, and I do believe this staff can develop a game plan good enough to win in such a tough environment.  However, I simply don’t see enough consistency and balance on offense to score enough points, or see the Gator O-Line doing enough to allow Harris and the WRs the chance to win the game.  The great equalizer can be turnovers or a few big returns by the special teams.  The defense is capable of generating those turnovers, but they are less likely when the opponent can play a more conservative game knowing the Gator offense is struggling.  Also, there has been no evidence to date that Florida has the return game to either flip the field or get some momentum-changing scores.  It is really tough to predict what will happen with so much sudden change, but it’s even harder to think that a special season could become only a good one.

Prediction:  LSU 27        Florida 17