For One Half, Gators Show The Future

LEXINGTON, Kentucky --- By halftime Saturday, the Deadman Walking Farewell Tour for Kentucky Coach Rich Books had become Countdown to Firing Day. The timeline for the inevitable was accelerated when the Florida Gators put on a clinic for the spread option offense, running it the way it was intended en route to a 49-7 halftime lead that had only the heartiest of Kentucky faithful hanging around Commonwealth Stadium for more bloodshed in the second half.

You can forget how the Wildcats came back to score 21 points in the second half. The points were of little consequence since they were all scored against the Florida second team defense, further bolstering the contention of Coach Urban Meyer that the second unit has a long, long way to go.

"Our twos were very unproductive offensively and defensively," said the Florida coach after the Gators took a 49-28 Southeastern Conference victory. "My fears were exposed. That means that this program has very little depth."

The depth didn't really matter, though. It was what the first team offense and defense did in the first half that was mind-numbing enough that you can definitely start the countdown until the day that Brooks, who is not very popular with the Kentucky faithful, is history. He has won eight games in his career at Kentucky and he's yet to beat a legitimate Division I team that has a winning record. The way the Gators were playing in the first half with the starters in the game, Kentucky had no chance.

The first half numbers for the Gators were impressive --- 435 first half offensive yards that included 298 passing yards and touchdowns on seven straight possessions while the defense gave up a mere 69 total yards after spotting the Wildcats a touchdown following a blocked punt on the Gators opening possession of the game.

But the numbers only tell a portion of the story. The real story is that for the first time in the four games of the Urban Meyer era, the Gators got all elements of their offensive package to work which means the option part of the spread option was actually functioning and the guards were blocking well enough that the tackles Randy Hand and Lance Butler and center Mike Degory got to concentrate on their jobs for a change. In games one, two and three the three Florida veterans were having to keep one eye on the guards while trying to handle their own assignments.

"In case you're wondering what we would like to have things look like, that first half was a heckuva deal," said Meyer.

Reggie Lewis #22 of the Florida Gators and Glenn Holt Jr. #4 of the Kentucky Wildcats reach for a pass intended for Holt on September 24, 2005 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky. Florida won 49-28. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Chris Leak had 298 yards passing and four touchdowns during the first half onslaught in what was easily his best and most complete performance of the season. He made excellent decisions throwing the ball and he showed that he is more than capable of handling the option, running the ball nicely and making good decisions on the pitch play. In the first three games, Leak showed no inclination to run the option much less the skill it would take to make it successful. That all changed Saturday, a day when his passing numbers were sensational.

For the game, Leak's numbers were 25-32 for 319 yards and four touchdowns.

"I thought Chris Leak played terrific," said Meyer. "That's as best as he's thrown the ball in practice, warm-ups conditioning …whenever he's thrown the ball … I thought he had that look in his eye."

The play of the guards boosted the offensive line in such a way that Meyer remarked, "This is the first time our offensive line has blocked someone in '05. I don't believe we had blocked anyone yet and this is the first week we blocked them."

With the option element in the offense, it made the Kentucky defense divvy up its assignments. Linebackers were forced to make the run their first priority and that exposed Kentucky's secondary to Chad Jackson and Jemalle Cornelius in what was a huge mismatch. Jackson and Cornelius combined for 17 catches for 243 yards and two touchdowns.

For Cornelius, this was his breakout game and it couldn't have come at a better time. With last week's injury to Bubba Caldwell (broken leg), Cornelius was called on to step up his game to compensate for Caldwell's absence. He had six catches coming into the game. He had eight catches for 138 yards Saturday including a 50-yarder and he had a 26-yard kickoff return that was a block away from going for a score.

Chris Leak #12 of the Florida Gators throws a pass against the Kentucky Wildcats on September 24, 2005 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky. Florida won 49-28. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

"I love Jemalle Cornelius," said Meyer. "I love that kid. You talk about all the right things … he's about all the right things. He has a big old smile on his face right now and he had his best game as a Gator."

The big numbers by the receivers and the consistency in the running game were made possible by Leak finally showing that he can handle all the requirements of this offense. With the option as a legitimate threat in the running game, the Gators got the kind of production that Meyer was looking for. Florida ran the ball 42 times for 187 net yards and threw just 36 passes (350 yards) for the game.

"We wanted to get the option going," said Meyer. "We made a concerted effort. He [Leak] has to do it. That's what we do. Will he run it as as much as some other guys we've had in the past? I don't know. Not if he throws it like that."

On defense, the Gators stuffed Kentucky's running game in the first half (16 of Kentucky's 25 yards rushing came on the first drive of the game) and when the Wildcats had to pass the ball, Florida was opportunistic, picking off two first half passes, both by linebacker Earl Everett. Tony Joiner got a second half interception and the Gators also forced a fumble.

Kentucky managed just five completions in 17 pass attempts in a first half when the Gators controlled the ball for 21:12 of the 30 minutes. For the game, Florida finished with 34:44 in time of possession, the fourth straight week that the Gators have controlled the clock. Florida ran 78 plays to Kentucky's 66 but the first half numbers were the ones that were impressive --- Florida had 52 first half plays to Kentucky's 26.

The only flaw in Florida's first half game was the play of the special teams which allowed 111 kickoff return yards and the blocked punt. Other than that, the Gators were a fairly good glimpse of the way that Meyer wants his teams to look every time they take the field.

Meyer has an almost fanatical insistence on balance between the run and the pass. Balance had much to do with the problems Kentucky experienced on defense in the first half. The Wildcats could never get a real handle on what to expect next from Florida's multi-dimensional attack. When the Wildcats blitzed, the Gators got rid of the ball quickly. When they opted to drop and cover, Florida ran the option. When the Wildcats tried to be run-stuffers, Florida faked the option and found receivers wide open all over the field.

For the half, the play distribution was equal --- 26 running plays and 26 passing plays. Ironically the Gators had 13 rushing plays and 13 passing plays in each quarter. During the second half onslaught, Florida ran 13 times for 89 yards and the Gators threw the ball 13 times (11 completions) for 161 yards.

It was quite the turnaround from last Saturday night when Florida's offense struggled in every phase against a Tennessee defense that is light years better than Kentucky. Still, had the Gators played with the kind of precision that they showed against Kentucky --- blockers making their assignments, the option part of the game --- there would have been far more points and much more yardage against the Vols.

"The first half was really good," said Meyer. "I saw the confidence in their eyes."

So forget what happened in the second half. That was the second unit playing and gaining experience. Had the first team played in the second half, this is a game that might have been defined by Star Wars numbers. Even though the second half was painful to watch the game was never in doubt and Florida got to rest its first unit defense all but a couple of minutes there when the Gators were determined to keep Kentucky from getting a fourth second half touchdown.

Florida played like the Florida everyone has been expecting to see in that first half. The second half proved, as Meyer said, that Florida needs "a couple more top notch recruiting classes" so the second team quality is not such a dropoff from the starters. He admitted the second half effort by the second teamers left him "absolutely disgusted."

So forget what happened in the second half and focus in on that first half. What you saw in the first half is a vision of the the future of Florida football. That's the kind of production you can expect in the future when the Gators are hitting regularly on all cylinders.

Members of the Florida Gators celebrate after their 49-28 win over the Kentucky Wildcats on September 24, 2005 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

That is the offense the Gators need to show up with next Saturday in Tuscaloosa when Florida faces unbeaten Alabama. What we saw Saturday in the first half wasn't perfect but it was close enough to perfect to whet appetites and to give Bama defensive coordinator Joe Kines sleepless nights this week. If you were wondering if this offense can work and if Leak can run the option, you got an answer Saturday. If you wondered if the line can block, you saw Saturday that a week of practice and a changing of the guards can do wonders.

Considering it was Kentucky, perhaps Saturday's showing wasn't a quantum leap, but it was certainly a positive glimpse of the kind of points and yardage you get when everyone hits their assignments. The bottom line is that Florida is now 4-0 overall out of the gate and 2-0 in the SEC East. There are still seven games left on the regular season schedule along with six conference games. There is a lot of work to be done if the Gators are to win a championship but each week makes you believe the Gators just might have what it takes. For one half on Saturday, they looked like world beaters.

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