Gators still search for offensive consistency

TAMPA – Doug Nussmeier knows what awaits the Florida Gators Monday afternoon when they take on the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.

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“This team we’re gonna play this week, I mean, exceptional football team,” Nussmeier said Saturday afternoon after the Gators finished practice at Jesuit High School. “Twenty-fourth in the nation in defense (352.8 yards per game), 10th in scoring (17.9). I mean, they’re an exceptional defensive team. So you better come to work every day knowing you better bring your best.”

In their final three regular season games – wins over Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska – the Hawkeyes gave up a combined 23 points and 616 yards. In the game prior to that season-ending 3-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes gave up 41 points and 599 yards (359 rushing and 240 passing) in an embarrassing 27-point loss to Penn State.

That loss to Penn State was the turning point in the Iowa season as the Hawkeyes raised their level of play and found real consistency.

While Iowa has found consistency on defense, Nussmeier is still trying to find a measure of consistency with the Florida offense. Since a 40-14 win over Missouri on October 15, the Gators have had only one game (South Carolina) with more than 300 yards of offense (372). They’ve had only one game (Georgia) in which they scored three touchdowns.

Only in the South Carolina game did the Gators show any measure of balance when they ran for 171 yards and threw for 201. In their final two regular season games against Florida State and Alabama, the Gators combined for 58 rushing yards (58 against FSU and 0 against Alabama). The Gators threw for more than 200 yards against Arkansas, South Carolina and Alabama. They lost to Arkansas when they managed 12 rushing yards and to Alabama when they gained 0.

It’s as if the Gators have the curse of Roseanne Rosannadanna, whose signature line was, “It just goes to show you, it’s always something. If it isn’t one thing, it’s always something else.”

That has been the way it is with the Florida offense all season and no one knows that better than Nussmeier, who has heard all the criticism after a season in which Florida’s offense ranks #110 nationally (345.1 yards per game).

Injuries and suspensions have played a part in the inconsistency. It started in August when projected starting guard Antonio Riles went down with an ACL. In the season opener, slot receiver Dre Massey, who was projected to be a game-breaker capable of taking the pressure off Antonio Callaway, tore an ACL and was lost for the year. Freshman wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland, expected to be a defense stretcher, missed the first game because of a suspension and the next two with hamstring issues. Callaway missed the North Texas game with an injury. Also in the North Texas game, quarterback Luke Del Rio hurt his knee and missed the next two games. Del Rio came back to start games against Missouri, Arkansas and Georgia but then he hurt his shoulder and hasn’t played since. On the offensive line, Cam Dillard tore an ACL in the Arkansas game. Tyler Jordan, Fred Johnson and Martez Ivey all missed games with injuries, too.

Of all the players on the offensive side of the ball only left tackle David Sharpe started every game. That doesn’t speak well for offensive continuity although it should bode well for the future since the injuries have forced Nussmeier to shuffle a lot of young bodies in and out.

"Well, the thing is you can look at, well, only one guy started every game, or you can look at it this way -- we're playing a lot of young players,” Nussmeier said. “And when you look at our roster, we've got everybody coming back and that's an exciting thing and I think that our guys, the more they play together the better they're going to be. Especially, you start right inside, you switch centers at the middle of the year -- unfortunately Cam gets hurt now TJ (McCoy) stepped in. Quarterback. So you start right from the center, the middle of your infield as they say in baseball, so it all starts right there."

Nussmeier wasn’t making excuses. The injuries are simply the reality he’s head to deal with on a week-to-week basis and it’s contributed to an offense that just hasn’t made its mark on a regular basis.

Against Iowa, the Gators will be as healthy on the offensive side of the ball as they’ve been in weeks, plus they’ve had 15 bowl practices to regain some sense of continuity and rhythm. Austin Appleby will be starting his fifth consecutive game at quarterback and T.J. McCoy will be starting his fourth consecutive game at center on an offensive line (LT Sharpe, LG Ivey, C McCoy, RG Johnson and RT Jawaan Taylor) that should be in the best physical shape it’s been in several games.

The Gators will need to be healthy and strong. If Nussmeier can get some sort of running game going Florida’s chances will be greatly enhanced. In their four losses, the Hawkeyes gave up an average of 240 yards on the ground. In the eight wins, the Hawkeyes gave up 109.8.

“We’ve struggled to find the consistency in the running game and we need to be a successful running team,” Nussmeier said, noting that the Hawkeyes’ defense is a physical bunch that is “very, very sound in what they do.”

For the Gators to end their season on a winning note and carry that momentum into the offseason, they will need to do something they haven’t done in awhile and that is put together an offensive game plan that incorporates a measure of balance between the run and pass.

Winning the game will be all about finding some consistency.

“It's consistency in our performance, and I think at times we've done some really, really good things,” Nussmeier said. “At other times, we haven't had the consistency we need. Obviously we're still gelling together as a group and we'll continue to push forward. Like I said, every day just work on getting better at something."

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