Boos Turn To Cheers For Gators In Second Half

For the first time in his head coaching career, Urban Meyer heard the boos Saturday afternoon. It was in the first half when the Florida Gators were sputtering along, unable to get the running game going and finding no consistency with the passing game against Mississippi State, in part because quarterback Chris Leak was playing with a shoulder sprained in last week's Alabama game.

When the Gators couldn't get their offensive act together, there was a smattering of boos from the crowd of 90,104 at The Swamp. Meyer said he didn't necessarily blame the fans for booing on a couple of busted play calls that resulted in Florida having to punt the football.

"I probably would boo a couple of them too," he said in his post game conference. "I actually was booing. I used a couple of different words, but I was booing."

Meyer heard the boos turn into cheers in the second half when his offense turned things around. When the dust settled, Florida had a 480-yard offensive output and a 35-9 win. Meyer didn't get the statement game from his offense that he was looking for but on this day, he didn't need one, not with the defense playing as it did and certainly not with the special teams clicking better than they have all season. There was just enough offense to let Meyer know that progress is being made and so much defense and special teams that Mississippi State was fortunate to escape with just a 35-9 loss.

What the Gators accomplished with Staturday's Homecoming game victory was a nice rebound from last week's first loss of the season. The win sets the stage for a chance for road game redemption next Saturday afternoon in Baton Rouge when the Gators face LSU, critical game for Florida's chances to win the SEC Eastern Division after Georgia's win over Tennessee Saturday afternoon. With a 3-1 SEC record, the Gators can ill afford another loss in conference play.

If the offense had put it all together on this hot afternoon, Meyer would have had his first dominating win in an SEC game. The defense and special teams were that good. Florida got six sacks, three turnovers and two safeties from its defense while the special teams contributed a field goal, a blocked punt for a touchdown and five Eric Wilbur punts downed inside the Mississippi State 20. Two of those punts were downed at the one, leading to the two safeties.

And even though the offense had a sputtering first half, the second half play was the first time this year that Florida has borne real resemblance to the offensive team that Meyer took the field with last year when he was at Utah.

What separated Saturday's second half from the first half onslaught at Kentucky two weeks ago when the Gators scored on seven straight possessions is that Florida finally made an opponent defend the entire field. Against Kentucky, Florida made the Wildcats defend vertically, but against Mississippi State, the Gators used both the width and length of the field.

Florida ran reverses, screen passes, shovel passes and got the option going both inside and outside. There were drop back passes thrown into the mix, too, so the Gators had Mississippi State chasing them all over the place after a very pedestrian first half that saw as many misfires as connections. Once Florida started making offensive plays using the width as well as the length of the field, the Gators became quite efficient and offered fans a long look of what the offense will be doing in the future when it's all reaction and very little thinking.

"The shovel pass got out the gate a little bit, we ran some option football and we had some success with drop back passes," said Meyer in his post game conference. "I think if you evaluate offensively we made them defend the entire width of the field and that's one of our goals. We had the screen game going good and we made some great plays off the screens.

"I think this is the first time we felt we made people [on the defensive side] and we tried to take advantage of our speed."

Part of the offensive game plan is to make the defense spend an inordinate amount of time running to chase the ball. In Meyer's grand scheme of things, the defense has to defend every square inch of its turf and it better be fast or else Florida is going to take off like a runaway freight train.

Florida nearly doubled Mississippi State's output of 243 yards with a 480-yard effort that Meyer felt was quite deceiving. The Gators gained a lot of yards but they left points and big plays on the field because of stupid penalties and turnovers. Florida had a season high four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble) to go with eight costly penalties.

Florida lost a touchdown in the first half when wide receiver Chad Jackson lost control of the ball as dived for the end zone. Stretching the ball forward at the one at the end of a 13-yard screen play, it appeared that Jackson flipped the ball at the pylon at the goal line. The ball hit the pylon and then skipped out of bounds, turning the ball over the Mississippi State on a touchback.

Florida had a 16-yard run by Jackson called back for holding in the fourth quarter and in the first half, two Gator drives stalled out, in part due to a five-yarder for illegal formation and a false start on a first down play. A holding penalty and a false start put the Gators in a second and 18 position in the fourth quarter and that contributed to the intercepted pass that killed Florida's drive.

"I think the 480 yards are very misleading because I think a lot of that was maybe after the fact," said Meyer. "The penalties are extremely disturbing. For Chad … and I love Chad but it's time to become a big leaguer. It's not about what the media says or recruiting analysts say or how many stars you have. Not one time have we ever coached that you take the ball and throw it at the pylon. I know we see that at the next level and that's what the big boys do but the big boys don't do that at the University of Florida."

The offense struggled in the first half as Leak had problems recognizing the Mississippi State defense and hitting open receivers. He was 7-16 in the first half for 64 yards. In the second half, he found his groove and completed 11-17 passes for 180 yards.

For the second straight week, Leak found a go-to guy in wide receiver Dallas Baker. Baker finished with a career high in catches (seven) and receiving yards (123). It was the second straight week that Baker went over the 100-yard mark.

"I think Dallas Baker played a tremendous game," said Meyer. "I think he's turning into our most polished receiver."

Leak's slow start could probably be explained by the fact he didn't practice the entire week leading up to Saturday's game. Leak injured his throwing shoulder in last year's Florida State game. That injury was aggravated early against Alabama last week, and in the first quarter against Mississippi State, Leak took a shot tgo the shoulder and his arm went numb briefly.

"He had to take a shot in the shoulder before the game," said Meyer. "He's a very courageous guy, a tough guy. He missed some throws and we gotta get him right this week coming up."

Leak wasn't the only banged up Gator. Florida played without wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius, still too sore to play after going down with an injury against Alabama last week. Tailback DeShawn Wynn also didn't practice prior to the Mississippi State game because of a bruised shoulder but he got into the game and made significant contributions, running five times for 24 yards including a 13-yard scoring run for Florida's first touchdown of the game to go with a 27-yard run with a shovel pass.

There was also a time in the second half when Jackson was banged up and Baker was out with a ding for a couple of plays.

"At one point on offense we didn't have an experienced playmaker out there," said Meyer.

The injuries couldn't keep the Gators from racking up 480 yards of total offense. The offense was helped along by a subtle change in Florida's sideline demeanor. Instead of handling everything from the sideline, Offensive Coordinator Dan Mullen worked from the booth Saturday and that's where he will be at least in the immediate future. Meyer said he had kept Mullen on the sideline to talk to the quarterbacks because "I tend to be a lunatic down there so quarterbacks don't look to me very often."

He made the move to the booth Saturday because Meyer felt the play calling would be better if the offensive coordinator had a better view and all his charts and play possibilities in front of him.

"I think the coordinator should have all his stuff in front of him so we're going to keep him up there [in the booth] for awhile," said Meyer.

The defensive co-coordinators had themselves quite a day. Mississippi State got 132 of its 243 yards on two plays, a 56-yard pass to Keon Humphrey on the next to the last play of the first half and a 76-yard run by Jerious Norwood for a touchdown in the second half. Other than those two plays, Florida was in total command.

Linebacker Brandon Siler, who tackled quarterback Mike Henig in the end zone for a safety in the third quarter, had his most devastating hit of the season in the second quarter when he knocked MSU's first string quarterback Omarr Conner out of the game with a bruised sternum.

Defensive end Jeremy Mincey had 10 tackles including two sacks and another tackle for loss. Reggie Nelson had a pair of sacks and Jarvis Herring got a sack when he forced Conner to intentionally ground the ball in the end zone for a safety.

Take away the 56-yard completion and the Bulldogs were 10-24 for 82 yards, an average of 3.3 per pass attempt. Minus the 76-yard run by Norwood, the Bulldogs had 29 carries for 33 yards.

It wasn't the complete performance that Meyer would have liked, but it was good enough to let him know that this work in progress is getting ever so close to the team that he wants to put out on the field every week.

"We've got some good players but we're not a great team," said Meyer. "We're becoming a good team, but we're not a great team yet."

THE EMMITT EFFECT: Since taking the Florida job, Meyer has made it a point to open the doors wide for ex-Gators. The doors were never opened wider than they were Saturday morning when Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher and a former Florida All-America, had breakfast with the team. Meyer invited Smith to speak to the Gators and when Emmitt spoke, everybody listened.

"I don't do that very often but something in my heart told me that Emmitt was going to deliver a very good message," said Meyer.

Smith delivered a speech that Meyer said was "as good a 10-minute speech as I've ever heard. The whole thing was take care of your boys. He talked about how he could not come out of a game because he would let Michael Irvin or Troy Aikman down."

Meyer said the speech had the undivided attention of the team.

"It was a strong, strong moment, as strong as I've ever been a part of," said Meyer. "That was a powerful, powerful message by arguably the best football player of all time … and a Gator."

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