Was it a case that Kentucky is that improved or the Florida Gators maybe aren’t as good as expected? Florida’s 36-30 win over the Wildcats Saturday night at The Swamp raised both possibilities but the weeks ahead will answer those questions. For now, it’s a mixed bag for the Gators. Here are four positives to take from the win and four concerns as the Gators begin their preparations for #3 Alabama in Tuscaloosa Saturday (3 p.m., Bryant-Denny Stadium, CBS).
1. SECOND HALF OFFENSIVE ADJUSTMENTS: Second half adjustments. What a concept. After two years of few offensive adjustments during the intermission, coordinator Kurt Roper showed against Kentucky that if something doesn’t work, he’ll alter his plans to come up with something that will. The perfect example was Jeff Driskel, who was 7-20 for 116 yards in the first half. In the second and overtime, Driskel was 18-23 for 175 yards and three touchdowns.
In the first half, Roper called for the deep ball five times without a completion. In the second half, with Kentucky cognizant that the Gators were willing to take some shots down the field, the passing game shifted to the short and medium routes that produced yards after the catch and got the offense moving down the field.
2. THE OLD 1-2 PUNCH: While there are some experts who think Alabama has the best collection of running backs in the country with Georgia is right behind, Florida’s 1-2 punch of Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor is nothing to sneeze at. Jones and Taylor are big time backs who definitely belong as feature guys in the SEC. Against Kentucky, Jones ran for 156 yards and a touchdown while Taylor had 65. Jones got the final four carries of the game, powering his way for 25 yards and the game-winning touchdown in the third overtime.
For the season, Jones has 221 (5.97 per carry) for two touchdowns and Taylor has 132 (5.74) and another two touchdowns. While neither Jones nor Taylor has what most would consider home run speed, they are capable of covering a lot of green grass when given a crease and both have the bodies to absorb contact.
3. Dante Fowler JR. BRINGING THE HEAT: If not for Fowler against Kentucky, the Gators might have had some really serious problems. Fowler was the pass rush and Florida’s only disruptive force. His numbers for the Kentucky game: six tackles, two for nine yards in losses, a sack for a loss of eight, a forced fumble and four quarterback hurries. Fowler is so good coming off the edge that he’s going to command a double team every single play and that should open things up on the other side for Neiron Ball and Alex McCalister.
4. THUNDERFOOT IS BACK: Back in 2012 when the Gators were ultra-conservative on the offensive end, Kyle Christy consistently flipped the field with his booming punts. Christy averaged 45.8 yards per punt and was a Ray Guy finalist that year. Last season he punted the first six games, averaged 41.97 and lost his job to Johnny Townsend at midseason because he got so little hang time. Enter Coleman Hutzler as special teams coordinator. Hutzler, whose specialty at New Mexico was getting the snakes out of his kickers’ heads, seems to have worked his magic on Christy. Through the first two games, Christy is looking like the Christy of 2012. He’s averaging 48.56 per punt. Only three have been returned for 20 yards.
Proof positive that Thunderfoot is back came in the fourth quarter against Kentucky when he launched a 61-yarder that flipped the field at a time when the Wildcats had been moving the ball almost at will. Instead of decent enough field position where the Wildcats might have been able to move in for a game winning field goal attempt, Christy’s punt gave Kentucky the ball at their own seven.
1. BLITZ, BLITZ AND MORE BLITZ: The Gators got a steady diet of blitzes from Kentucky, some of which were successful simply because the Wildcats did a good enough job of disguising the fact they were bringing one more defender than the Gators could blitz. Then there was that teensy problem of Driskel inconsistently getting the right read. On at least four occasions, the Wildcats forced a bad throw – one was an interception – by bringing the heat. Typically it came from the left side, which begs the question was this a case of a missed assignment by someone on the line or in the backfield or did Driskel just make a bad read.
The problems with the blitz won’t be lost on Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. While Kentucky concentrated its blitz from Driskel’s blind (left) side, Alabama will rarely bring the blitz from the same place two times in a row. The Gators have to be particularly concerned with the Bama blitz straight up the gut. If you recall in 2011, the Gators were dead even with Alabama in The Swamp (10-10) in the second quarter when Saban started blitzing unmercifully. Following a 25-yard completion to Andre Debose, Saban brought the blitz on consecutive plays. The first was a sack by defensive end Ed Stinson after Courtney Upshaw flushed John Brantley out of the pocket. On the next play, Brantley read blitz but Upshaw stayed home, picked off the pass and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown.
Through three games, Alabama has seven sacks but in the last two games, the Tide has rarely brought pressure with anyone other than the front three. That will surely change Saturday.
2. A SECOND TARGET: A trademark of a Nick Saban defense is to take away the best receiver. If successful, it’s a two-fold benefit. First, it makes the quarterback go through another progression and that extra time means a greater chance the pressure from the pass rush is going to force a bad throw or a sack. Typically, the second and third targets aren’t nearly as quick or reliable, so by taking out the primary receiver it forces the quarterback to go to receivers he doesn’t trust nearly as much.
With 15 catches for 216 yards and a couple of touchdowns against Kentucky, Demarcus Robinson established himself as the first real go-to receiver the Gators have had since Riley Cooper in 2009. Against Kentucky, Quinton Dunbar caught only two passes for seven yards and Ahmad Fullwood had two for 15.
Typically, in a Kurt Roper offense, the tight end provides such a target in the middle of the field that it takes some of the pressure off the primary receiver. Clay Burton has caught nine passes this season but he’s not exactly a downfield threat. The answer could be Tevin Westbrook, who had three career catches for 30 yards heading into the season. Against Kentucky, he caught two for 25 and a touchdown, showing some speed once he turned the ball up the field. The question against Alabama is can Westbrook get downfield and make the catches in traffic?
3. WHAT HAPPENS IF VHIII NEUTRALIZES Amari Cooper?: The apple never falls that far from the tree, so while it’s a given that Saban and Kirby Smart will do their best to take Demarcus Robinson out of the game, Will Muschamp will try to do the same thing with Amari Cooper, whose three-game totals are 33 catches, 454 yards and two touchdowns. In his career, Cooper has 136 catches for 2,189 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is the unquestioned go-to guy in the Bama passing game so you have to figure Muschamp, who coached with Saban and Smart at LSU and in the NFL, will try to neutralize him.
The best way to take out Cooper will be to match him up with Vernon Hargreaves III, the best cover corner in the SEC and no worse than one of the three best in the entire country. If anyone can take Cooper out, it’s Hargreaves, but unlike Florida, Alabama has a couple of receivers who would be go-to guys at just about any other school. Christion Jones, who doubles as one of the nation’s best return men, has only nine catches for 133 yards this season, but he has 75 in his career, good for 899 yards and six scores. Then there is DeAndrew White, who only has six for 73 this year. He has 60 catches for 863 yards and eight touchdowns in his career.
As Florida showed in the Kentucky game, Brian Poole can hold his own in coverage, but the other guys in the secondary had their problems. If Hargreaves takes Cooper out, Alabama will focus its attention on the other cover guys who will have the task of handling Jones and White. If the Gators can’t cover those two, then they are going to have problems.
4. WHAT IF IT COMES DOWN TO A FIELD GOAL?: Frankie Velez missed a 39-yard field goal and Austin Hardin didn’t come close on a 52-yarder at the end of the game. Velez probably won’t miss from 35 yards on in, but beyond that the Gators look very, very shaky. Either Velez needs to hit something more than 40 yards in a hurry or else Hardin needs to show he can split the uprights. If they can’t give the Gators a threat beyond 40 yards it’s going to alter how the Gators call a two-minute offense at the end of halves.