Defensive Answers

Despite loss, Daryl Dixon leads Gators to impressive first half of defense...

By Jeff Darlington Standing on the sideline last season, there was nothing Florida safety Daryl Dixon could do. No tackles. No interceptions. No fumble recoveries.

He could offer nothing but his role as a glorified cheerleader. Yet for some reason, Florida coach Ron Zook let the injured senior travel for road games. For some reason, his teammates wouldn't have it any other way.

"That tells you something," said Zook, who used a roster spot just so Dixon could root his team on. "He's an important part of this team – whether he's playing or not."

Sure, he was a leader. But now, he's back to being a player.

Despite a 38-33 loss to Miami, it was Dixon who kept the Gators in the game far longer than anyone expected.

Dixon led the Gators to their most impressive defensive performance under Zook, forcing and recovering a fumble and intercepting a Brock Berlin pass.

The redshirt senior became the perfect poster boy for a defense doubted by so many.

"Last year was hard on me," Dixon said.

Last year wasn't so easy on the Gators, either. A season ago against Miami, Florida gave up 508 yards of offense. Willis McGahee rolled to 306 yards on the ground.

But this year? In the first quarter, the Gators didn't give up an inch of rushing. They gave up just 16 yards of total offense in the first half.

With a new defensive coordinator in Charlie Strong, Florida's defense has made the quarterback controversy step aside. The program known for so long its offense has turn offensive powerhouse has turned into a defensive power.

And it was Dixon who spurred on a slew of impressive performances from cornerbacks Johnny Lamar and Keiwan Ratliff and linebacker Channing Crowder. All produced the big plays Florida has been looking for since Zook arrived.

"We're the backbone of the defense," Dixon said. "They can't score if they don't get through us."

Before the game, defensive end Bobby McCray said it would be "a party in the backfield." For the first half, forget the party. This was New Year's Eve.

Keiwan Raliff picked up a fumbled screen pass and returned it for a touchdown – the third defensive score in two games. (Florida scored just three defensive touchdowns all last season.) Later, Ray McDonald rocked Berlin for a sack. Then, Dixon picked up his fumble and interception.

Keep in mind, the Gators picked up 10 fumbles all season. They ranked 91st in turnover margin at –9. At the end of the third quarter, they were at +4 for the season.

Reminiscent of last year's game against Tennessee, Saturday's success was the result of turnovers. The Volunteers handed over three possessions in the 30-13 upset.

This one was different. It was bigger. After all, Florida was the biggest underdog – 14 ½ points a day before the game – that it's been since 1988.

At the start of the season, it was inexperience that called for the most questions. Saturday, it was a senior who started providing some the answers.

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