Run defense set for a challenge

Since defensive tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season, the Florida run defense has taken a nosedive. The Gators allowed 55.3 yards per game on the ground in their first three games this season with Easley healthy, but since his injury in practice, Florida is giving up 136.8 yards per game on the ground. And it doesn't get any easier this weekend in Columbia, S.C.

A Florida defense that was able to pride itself on taking away the opponent's run game early in the season now can't get off the field when it needs it the most. That showed against Georgia late in the game, as the Bulldogs ran out the final eight minutes of the clock and didn't give the Gators a chance to win the game.

Vanderbilt rushed for 126 yards on Saturday. The Commodores used their running game to march down the field and take an early 3-0 lead, and once they were in control of the game because of Florida turnovers, Vanderbilt kept the ball on the ground. And Florida couldn't stop it.

"I said it when it happened, you don't replace Dominique Easley," head coach Will Muschamp said. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint, it's the heart of your team. It's tough. But we certainly have capable players to come out and play well, and play better than we've played in some situations.

"You don't put your finger on one thing and say it's because of this. It's the cumulative effect of different things that have occurred and you've just got to overcome it."

There were signs coming into the season. The Gators lost seven starters off last year's defense, and six of those came in the middle of the defense. Losing defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans would be difficult for any program to recover from.

But Muschamp was still confident in the offseason. He said multiple times that the coaches liked the personnel in the middle of the defense and didn't expect many problems on the run defense.

"I felt really good going into the season with where we were," Muschamp said about the run defense. "Certainly, we've not had the results we wanted to consistently through the year and that's been frustrating."

There's a big challenge for the Florida run defense on the schedule this weekend and -- it's a familiar face. South Carolina running back Mike Davis has rushed for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games this season. Once committed to the Gators in high school, Davis now looks like one of the best running backs in the league for the Gamecocks.

"He's a really good player, a guy we thought a lot of coming out of Stephenson (High School) there in Atlanta," Muschamp said. "He is having an outstanding year, certainly has been a huge different in their run game, especially losing Lattimore last year. Mike's been a really good player for them."

CLOWNEY LOOMING: Davis has turned into a dynamic player on the offensive side of the ball, but on the South Carolina defense, Jadeveon Clowney is the big name. The statistics haven't matched it this season. Clowney has two sacks in eight games this season, adding 6.5 tackles for a loss, two pass break ups, seven quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.

With the issues on the Florida offensive line this season, the Gators are trying to find ways to slow Clowney.

"You have to prepare for him every snap as far as the run game and the pass game," Muschamp said. "He's an explosive player, he's got great initial quickness for his size, he's got great power. He's a guy that has a great combination of speed-to-power, and that's the most difficult issue you deal with. He's got great instincts on blocks."

BOWL ELIGIBILITY: The topic of bowl eligibility doesn't happen often in Gainesville, but the Gators will have to pull off at least one upset to make it to a bowl game this year. The concern of missing a bowl game for the team is the lack of extra bowl practices that help player development.

It was a key time for Loucheiz Purifoy, who dominated bowl practices after the 2011 season in Florida's preparation for the Gator Bowl and eventually earned a start in the game.

"It's a great time for the young players to continue to develop in the program and practice the game of football," Muschamp said. "It's a developmental game, you can get a lot out of the weight room you can get a lot out of running and all that good stuff but you've gotta play the game and the number of snaps and reps you get in situations is critical."

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