1st Year Offense Has A Similar Look For Meyer

It can't be easy for Coach Urban Meyer these days. The spread option offense is his baby. He knows how it can stretch a defense to its breaking point and how it creates so many mismatches that it renders senseless an opponent's ability to resist. Worst of all, he knows it will work, even against SEC defenses yet for the moment, at least, he's having to bite his tongue while the skeptics stand on their soapboxes and crow, "I told you so."

Fans saw an offense straight out of Star Wars last year at Utah. This hybrid that takes the best elements from the wishbone, veer, double wing, shotgun spread and west coast offenses, blew circuits on scoreboards and went through reams of computer paper printing out the stats. Fans saw option plays that went the distance, reverses that made opponents look downright silly, a line that opened gaping holes and a quarterback whose toughest decision was to shred the defense with his feet or do it with his arm.

That's what they saw at Utah and that's what they hoped for when Meyer became Florida's coach even though there have been questions all along whether Gator quarterback Chris Leak could adapt to the new scheme. Leak is trying to make the transition from a drop back, pocket passing scheme to a philosophy that requires him to orchestrate a running game that requires his participation with a passing game that incorporates a few different wrinkles than what he's used in the past.

During the beer and barbeque circuit in the spring and early summer, Meyer continually said that Leak most definitely could fit in with this offensive scheme. He also called for second year production out of a first year offense but five games into the season, Florida's offensive unit has yet to put together a complete game where both the running and passing games are clicking like it's year two. Although the numbers prove the offense is doing better than it did in year one at both Bowling Green and Utah, it is still nowhere close to where Meyer wants it.

The closest the Gators have come to replicating Utah was during that stretch of seven straight first half touchdowns against Kentucky in Lexington. That high tech display was followed by a scoreless second half that carried over into last week in Tuscaloosa when Florida failed to score a touchdown in a game for the first time since 1992 when Steve Spurrier came up empty on the road in Starkville against Mississippi State. In last Saturday's 31-3 loss to Alabama, Florida's offense spit and sputtered but never ran smoothly for more than three or four plays in a row.

The lack of execution and production was headline material not just for Florida newspapers, but all over the nation. The skeptics are claiming the Alabama debacle is simply the first of what will be many come up empty performances for an offense they call "gimmicky." While Meyer knows it's not a gimmick, but a well thought out, fundamentally sound scheme, he's still frustrated that the Gators can't seem to get it all together. He's seen the Gators do a few things well but it hasn't been consistent production and he's yet to get the kind of running game that will play to Leak's strength by taking the linebackers out of pass coverage and forcing the secondaries to cover strictly one on one.

Meyer hasn't reached the threshold of his frustration quite yet, but he's definitely wondering when it will all click.

"Am I concerned?" he asked rhetorically after Wednesday's practice. "Hell yeah I'm concerned. Does that help? No. We just have to get a little better."

Fans and skeptics point to Florida's ongoing problems with an offensive line that has given up 18 sacks in five games compared to 19 all of last year in a 12-game season. The lack of running production from Leak (1 net yard in five games) is also fuel for the skeptics.

Meyer says it is all too easy to blame the offensive line for the problems. Because the Gators lost in the manner they did in Tuscaloosa, Meyer says there's plenty of blame to be shared and not just by the line. Nor is it a question that there are elements in the offense that just won't work.

"It's too complicated to say is it the line," said Meyer. "When a loss happens that's the first everyone wants to do is say whose fault was it? It was the Gators fault. We didn't play very well.

"If there was just one guy you replace just one guy. If it was a certain series of plays, you get rid of that series."

The concern echoed by Meyer does not yet equate to panic in large part because he knows that at some point all the switches will flip on and the offense will go from pedestrian to subsonic. He's seen how the spread option adapts and evolves over the course of one season and how it improves by quantum leaps in year two.

Recalling the first games at his previous head coaching stops, Meyer said, "We were awful [in year one] at Utah. Bowling Green? Yep. Terrible."

In Meyer's first game as a head coach at Bowling Green, the Falcons came away with a 20-13 win over Missouri, a game that can best be described as ugly.

"Somehow we won that Missouri game," he said. "You look at the stats of that one… first game as a head coach and it was terrible and somehow we hung onto the ball, played good defense and moved it around a little bit and we won the game."

Florida won its first four games of 2005 in roughly the same manner: turning the ball over just twice, playing great defense and getting enough offensive production even if it lacked consistency, particularly in the running game. It wasn't until the Gators ran into the Alabama buzzsaw that the offense basically shut down completely.

Even with the Tuscaloosa meltdown, Florida's offense is averaging 252 yards passing and 147 yards rushing while scoring at a 28.2 clip through five games. In his first five games at Bowling Green in 2001, Meyer's offense averaged 190.6 passing yards and 152 rushing yards while scoring at 30.4 points per game. During Meyer's first year at Utah, the Utes averaged 28.4 points through the first five games while racking up 204.8 passing yards and 171.8 rushing yards per game.

Now, contrast the five game averages at Bowling Green and Utah with the final numbers at season's end. At Bowling Green, the 2001 team finished the year averaging 217 passing yards and 166.9 rushing yards per game. The Falcons averaged 31.1 points per game. At Utah in 2003, the Utes finished the season averaging 214 yards passing and 160.5 yards rushing. Utah averaged 28.7 points per game.

Obviously at both stops, the lights started to go on with the offense at or about midseason. The year two production shows that once the lights went on, they stayed on.

Bowling Green went from 31.1 points per game to 40.8 points a game in 2002. The Falcons averaged 448 yards per game in 2002 after averaging 384 in 2001. Most significant is that Bowling Green's rushing totals increased by more than 50 yards per contest.

Utah averaged 374.5 yards per game in 2003 but in 2004 the Utes averaged 499.8 with outstanding balance, rushing for 236 and passing for 263 per game. Scoring increased from 28.7 to 45.3 points per game.

At Utah, Meyer started seeing flashes of potential in games three, four and five in his first season. The Utes beat California in the third game and followed that up with wins over Colorado State and Oregon.

"We beat Cal when Cal was good," said Meyer. "They beat USC that year. We beat them 31-24 when we scored on the last play of the game or the second to last play. We came back and beat Colorado State and then Oregon. We got a nice balanced attack and said there we go."

Meyer is busy this week tweaking the offense and working through the problems on the offensive line. He anticipates the guard play will be better this week with a healthier Tavares Washington and Jim Tartt in the lineup. Even though center Mike Degory is fighting through injuries, he will be going along with senior tackles Randy Hand and Lance Butler. Leak is making his reads better in practice and redshirt freshman Markus Manson, the team's fastest running back, is expected to start in Saturday's homecoming game with Mississippi State. He will also be putting true freshman quarterback Josh Portis on the field a bit more with orders to throw the ball and not just take off running.

So Meyer knows it's just a matter of time before it works. He knows that Leak can do certain things that can make the offense as good as it was at Utah, too. Until the Alabama game, Leak's production was actually ahead of the numbers at Utah in year one.

"After the Kentucky game someone showed me and they're [numbers] actually better," said Meyer. "Up until last week the kid was hitting 71 percent of his passes with no interceptions and I can think of a few worse quarterbacks than that … as a matter of fact, about 117."

CORNELIUS UPDATE: Meyer said that wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius is still sore at midweek but he's expected to play Saturday against Mississippi State. Cornelius did not play the second half against Alabama after getting banged up.

For the season, the junior out of Fort Meade has 14 catches for 217 yards, third best on the team behind Chad Jackson (40 catches, 455 yards) and Dallas Baker (22 catches, 277 yards).

FIRST DRIVE PRODUCTION: Meyer is well aware that the Gators have not scored on their first drive this season. He called the first drive efforts "awful."

Florida's only success on the opening drive came against Tennessee. Florida held Tennessee, forced a punt, and then took two plays to get to the UT 20 only to have a penalty call back a 23-yard run by DeShawn Wynn. Instead of first and ten at the Tennessee 20, Florida was first and 15 at the UT 48. The drive stalled from there.

"I'm very concerned about that [lack of first drive production]," said Meyer. "We're not an offensive team yet … go flip on those offensive teams that are moving it pretty good."

PORTIS TO SEE MORE ACTION: Meyer is planning to get Portis more seasoning against Mississippi State. Portis has shown excellent running ability so far (21 carries, 119 yards) but he's been a reluctant passer with only three completions in six attempts for 36 yards. Meyer said that Portis has to get more comfortable with the passing aspects of the offense.

"Our quarterback is more than running the option," said Meyer. "He's got to be able to be a balanced guy."

Meyer said that Portis is improving as a passer.

"He's better now than he's ever been but he's not a polished passer," said Meyer.

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