The Gators have turned the ball over just once this season while forcing six opponents' turnovers. Saturday night, Florida had zero turnovers and 34:30 time of possession while Tennessee turned the ball over one time and couldn't keep the ball out of the Gators' hands. For the season, the Gators are averaging holding the ball 34:06 per game.
The defense is ranked second nationally, giving up only 199 yards per game, and the Gators are fourth nationally in scoring defense, giving up only eight points per game. Florida is ranked eleventh nationally against the run (61 yards per game) and tenth nationally against the pass (136 yards per game).
Saturday night against Tennessee, Florida's defense allowed the Vols minus-four yards rushing in the second half and never allowed penetration beyond the Florida 48-yard line. Combined with the special teams, that helped stake the Gators to an averaging starting position the 40-yard line while Tennessee's average start was on the 26.
Florida made three exceptional special teams plays, too. In the first half, Dee Webb blocked what would have been a go-ahead Tennessee field goal. In the second half, long snapper James Smith made a hard tackle on the Vols punt returner which allowed Tremaine McCollum to recover a fumble that led to the go-ahead field goal by Chris Hetland. The Gators baited the Vols into thinking their gunner was uncovered on a punt, leading Britton Colquitt to try a pass that Tony Joiner almost intercepted. That allowed Florida to take over on the Tennessee 32, which led to a second Hetland field goal.
"We are a field position team," said Meyer Monday morning at his weekly media day. "If our special teams have a bad day, we'll lose."
The almost fanatical attention that Meyer and his staff pay to taking care of the ball has paid off handsomely. The Gators are not forcing the defense to defend a short field because they're putting the ball on the floor with fumbles or turning it over on interceptions. Meyer noted that the reason redshirt freshman running back Markus Manson isn't seeing action in crunch time is because he has a penchant for putting the ball on the ground in practice.
"If Markus Manson proves he can take care of the football, he'll play," said Meyer. "We're winning games right now not because of this high-octane machine that goes up and down the field but because we're following the plan to win.
"What we have to have is great field position. How do you do that? You have to play great defense, and we are. We cannot turn the ball over. If Markus Manson has a habit of dropping his wrist below the elbow and unlocking his elbow, he will not play. No one will because you jeopardize the chance of winning that game."
Meyer added that Manson's "attitude is, by far, the best. I put him on my kickoff team, and he made a tackle. His attitude is terrific. This week is the closest he's ever come to playing because he's making that move."
With the offense still hit and miss, the importance of taking care of the football and playing the field position percentages has to pay off for the Gators. The offense, Meyer believes, will come around but it's still plagued by missed assignments on the offensive line and penalties.
The Gators had a chance to score on their opening possession Saturday night when DeShawn Wynn ripped off a 22-yard run to the Tennessee 20, set up by a devastating crackback block on the Vols defensive end by Tate Casey, who was in motion on the play. Casey, however, was called for illegal motion on the play and that turned first and ten at the UT 20 to first and 15. Florida's drive stalled after that and the Gators punted.
"Think about that first drive," said Meyer. "You come out and throw the pass to Chad Jackson … he runs a good route then the defensive end gets knocked on his rear end. You're looking at a first-and-ten at the 20 yard-line, but a 22-yard penalty means that it comes back. It's nonsense. Penalties and inconsistent blocking are the two major issues."
The blocking issues will be addressed in practice this week. Meyer said he thinks there has been too much emphasis on the scheme and not enough emphasis on the basic fundamentals.
"I don't think it's a lack of courage or a lack of talent," he said. "I think it's a lack of technique and we're reevaluating our practice for the offensive line right now. What happens is we aren't going to spend as much time on schemes as we're going to go back to the fundamentals of base footwork and hand placement. Some of those things don't look very good right now.
"I don't think it's a personnel answer. There's not a group of backups chomping at the bit to get in there. It was made clear about six months ago that we have an issue with depth in the offensive line."
At previous coaching stops at Bowling Green and at Utah, the offense had its sputters early before it began to mesh. Meyer said the staff has been expecting this team to get things going more quickly than they did at the previous stops but so far there have been similar problems.
"The first four games at the other places made you sick to your stomach sometimes," he said. "I think we're actually further ahead here at times. We have pressed more than we ever have anywhere else to get second-year production out of a first-year offense. It's not happening yet."
CHAMPIONS CLUB: Meyer awarded Champion's Club to Steve Harris, Marcus, Thomas, Jeremy Mincey, Todd McCullough, Barndon Siler, Earl Everett, Dee Webb, Vernell Brown, Jarvis Herring, Reggie Nelson and Kyle Jackson on defense for their efforts against Tennessee.
Meyer pointed out that Jarvis Herring had 11 opportunities to make plays and he made the play all 11 times. Dee Webb had eight chances to make plays and he made the play all eight times.
"You wonder how we won the game, look at those two stats right there," said Meyer, who noted that the entire secondary made plays all night and only missed out on a couple of assignments.
STEPPING UP: Meyer said once again that the role Jemalle Cornelius plays in the offense will be increased this week due to the season-ending injury to Bubba Caldwell. Cornelius had his most productive game of the season against Tennessee with three catches for 53 yards. With Caldwell out, Cornelius, a junior from Fort Meade, will be moving into a role where he will be running with the football on reverses and option plays as well as running routes as a receiver. Meyer believes Cornelius, who is one of the fastest players on the team, is well equipped to handle the role.
"I saw him play against Georgia last year … he took a bad play and made a great play," said Meyer. "He's made some plays in games this year. We'll find out in games. I think Chad Jackson's role expands as well. So, those two are going to have to pick up the slack. On offense, you turn the heat up on Jemalle. His role on the offense just tripled."
THE MATTISON FACTOR: The dramatic improvement in Florida's defensive line is a tribute to the teaching of Coach Greg Mattison, said Meyer. Florida's co-defensive coordinator is a hands-on teacher who is a real proponent of using teaching tapes to help players see how they get good results from using the right techniques.
"I think the beautiful thing about our position is that it's so easy to evaluate how a coach does," said Meyer. "Guys can get up here, be great speakers and draw nice pictures of X's and O's and lines blocking people. Then you watch the film, and it doesn't look very good."
"Greg Mattison was one of the first phone calls I made. His players buy into what he teaches. He has great teaching tapes. When I teach you how to take out a block, I can tell you but it makes more sense to show you how it's done. He has a whole library of teaching tapes that he uses from players he has coached in the past. All our players talk about is how lousy their technique was and how much it has improved now."
HEALTHY COHEN: With Ray McDonald undergoing knee surgery Monday morning, Joe Cohen steps in as the starting defensive end. Cohen played well Saturday night against Tennessee and part of the reason his play has improved is his health. This is the first time he's been completely healthy since he's been at Florida.
"Joe Cohen has been hurt around here," said Meyer. "He made a comment to me that last year for six months he couldn't sleep on a certain side of his body because he had a major hip injury we later found out about. He had a calcified … almost like a bone protrusion in his hip."
The calcified bone which was bigger than a golf ball was removed by surgery after spring practice. Cohen is now playing pain free and showing that he's going to be a factor on the defensive line.
"I was actually disappointed with him in the spring and early in two a days but I think last two weeks is when he's made his move to become a major contributor," said Meyer.