The Honeymoon Comes To An End For Meyer

TUSCALOOSA --- Mike Shula may never escape the shadow of his famous dad (Don) or that of the man who walked on Alabama water (Bear Bryant) but Saturday he made a long-overdue statement that he's going to do just fine as the coach of the Crimson Tide. By earning the first true signature win of his coaching career, Shula finally got the statement win he's needed to quiet the critics but in doing so he put an official ending to the Urban Meyer honeymoon.

In game thirty of his tenure at Alabama, Shula finally earned a victory over a ranked opponent, proving that his defense first, conservative offense approach to a monumental rebuilding task is working just fine. In game five of his brief tenure as Florida's coach, Meyer will face questions that he didn't have to answer in the previous nine months, and particularly in games one through four which he won.

Alabama will no doubt use the win as a trampoline into the nation's top ten after their 31-3 win at Bryant-Denny Stadium while the many questions raised about Florida are likely to send the Gators into a rankings free-fall. Alabama showed it belongs while Florida only proved that the Gators were ranked too high too soon. Both these teams may very well be a work in progress, but the team with the most work to do is Florida.

Give a good portion of Alabama's success to former Gator defensive coordinator Joe Kines. Kines was the defensive coordinator for Charley Pell from 1981-84, an era when Florida's defense was as feared as it was talented. Saturday he mixed an efficient blitz package with a nicely disguised seven and eight-man coverage packages that left few holes for quarterback Chris Leak to exploit. The idea was to keep Florida quarterback Chris Leak guessing and the plan worked.

"Our plan was to keep pressure on Leak," said Bama linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "We've seen him get sacked in previous games. We did a great job disguising so he didn't know where we were coming from."

The lock down defense that the Gators played in games one through four was exposed early and often by Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle. Croyle completed 15-18 for 286 yards and three touchdowns. It was his 87-yard touchdown pass to Tyrone Prothro on Alabama's first offensive play of the game that set the tone for the entire game. He came back to find Prothro again on a 15-yarder in the third quarter and in the second quarter he got a 65-yarder to Keith Brown.

"We are a man coverage team and we were exposed," said Meyer. "We lost a lot of one-on-one battles. They are a very fast team. They looked a lot faster than we did today."

Alabama played like it belonged Saturday while the Gators played like a team with far more questions than there are answers as Meyer reshapes a Florida program that hadn't won its first four games since 2001. The loss was Meyer's first in 20 games dating back to his first year at Utah. It was the first time as a head coach that his team hasn't scored a touchdown and it was Florida's first game without a touchdown since the Gators lost to Mississippi State in 1992.

What had to be disheartening for Meyer was that Saturday's breakdown came just two weeks after Florida answered its first gut-check of the season with a resounding A-grade in a win over Tennessee. In that game, Florida played hard and played fast, countering its few mistakes with outstanding play by a defense that just wouldn't give in. Florida gave in early and gave in often. Alabama played like the team with the most invested.

"There is a big difference between being ready and being prepared," said Meyer after the game. "And we just got beat by a team that was better prepared. Pass defense had been one of our strengths but today it wasn't. Brodie Croyle played great and Prothro is a heckuva player."

Prothro, who broke his leg trying to catch a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter, finished the day with five catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. It was his fumble on a punt return, however, that gave Florida an early break. Alabama forced a punt on the first possession of the game, but Reggie Nelson forced a fumble which Daryl Gresham recovered at the Alabama 43. Instead of capitalizing on the break, the Gators shot themselves in the foot. A penalty, two running plays that went nowhere and an incomplete pass forced another punt, giving Alabama the ball on its own 13. Croyle followed with his bomb to Prothro

"You talk about a momentum swing … somehow you think you can knock it down there and kick a field goal or something and we went backwards," said Meyer. "Penalties again … one of our tackles jumped offsides and then just no run game at all. That was probably the checkmate. They hit that 87-yard pass and then everybody is on their heels the rest of the game. Our guys kind of caved in a bit."

The bomb to Prothro was just the first of several mistakes in what could be called the first quarter from hell. Florida did very little right and even when Alabama did something wrong, it's opportunistic, disciplined defense covered for the mistake. With no running room and Leak either running for his life or the receivers blanketed in coverage, the Gators managed all of one passing yard in the first quarter. Leak got that one yard on a completion to Chad Jackson nearly eight minutes into the game.

In the first ten minutes of the quarter, Leak fumbled (Florida recovered) inside the 10 and threw his first interception of the season (pass batted in the air by Mark Anderson, picked off by Chris Harry). The interception broke a string of 117 straight passes by Leak without throwing a pick. Leak's final numbers were 16-37 for 187 yards and two interceptions. He was sacked four times and hurried most of the game.

The first half was so completely dominated by Alabama that fans were dancing in the aisles and the Tide players were showing off their latest dance moves on the sideline. While Alabama danced, Florida was looking for a tourniquet to stop the the bleeding and that meant digging deep in the bag of tricks. The Gators took a big risk late in the first quarter when they faked a punt from their own 36. Earl Everett took a pitch from punter Eric Wilbur on a reverse and by the time he was wrestled down, the Gators were at the Alabama 32. The Gators got a 13-yard scramble from Leak and a 12-yard run from Chad Jackson on an option play helped the Gators move the ball inside the Alabama 10.

This was a real chance for Florida to get back in the game but like every other window of opportunity that opened on this day, it was slammed shut. If you are looking for the place where Florida's rally took the dagger to the heart that was it. The Gators got to the Bama one on three rushing plays that ended the first quarter. Rather than take the sure three points on a field goal, the Gators went for the touchdown on the first play of the second quarter but DeShawn Wynn found no room off right guard and was stuffed about a foot from the goal.

Alabama was never threatened again on its way to the biggest win in years in Tuscaloosa. Shula deferred credit to his assistants and players, but obviously, this was a win that solidified his position with the Bama faithful. All those rumors that Butch Davis is only a phone call away from taking over can be put to rest. Shula not only will find his team ranked in the top ten on Monday morning but Alabama is now a solid favorite to win the SEC West. Considering the Tide gets LSU and Tennessee in Tuscaloosa, figure that Alabama is now the team to beat and well on its way to re-establishing itself as a national power.

As for Florida, the loss doesn't put an end to the Gators aspirations for the SEC East title, but it does emphasize that there is a lot of work to be done. First on the agenda will be regaining confidence and rebuilding battered egos. Not only will Meyer have to spend the next week in practice getting some more bugs worked out of the offense, but he will also have to re-establish a level of assurance that his team will badly need.

To his credit, Meyer wouldn't blame his players for Saturday's debacle.

"The first fingers point at our coaching staff," he said. "The team in red was more prepared than the team in orange today."

So, mark it down. The Urban Meyer honeymoon ended October 1, 2005 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was bound to end eventually although no one would have predicted it would end quite this way. If he remains consistent to the way he's handled things in the past, Meyer will attack the problems one by one, making certain that the Gators are the most prepared team when they take the field next Saturday against Mississippi State. He won't use any magic formulas, just hard work. There won't be any mysteries.

As Al McGuire once said, "The only mystery in life is why kamikaze pilots wore helmets."

This isn't a kamikaze mission so the Gators will indeed be wearing helmets. Expect the players to strap them on extra tight this week in practice.

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