We've known since Alabama sliced and diced the Gators 31-3 in Tuscaloosa a couple of weeks ago that Florida had a few issues, particularly on offense, but Saturday's loss to an LSU team that really did its best to give the game away emphasizes just how much the Gators need answers and need them fast. It would take a miracle of Moses proportions for the Gators to win the SEC East after taking their second conference loss but it is still a salvageable season in the final four weeks.
Like the Alabama game, the Gators struggled against a defensive unit with outstanding linemen and backs who proved they can cover. Unlike Alabama, though, which pretty much decided it could get plenty of pressure with a three or four-man rush, LSU game planned to bring the house every time Florida went to an empty backfield, which was often. LSU sacked Chris Leak four times for 33 yards in losses and harassed him into the poorest passing game of his career. Leak finished the day with 11 completions in 30 attempts for 107 yards.
Leak misfired on his first four passes of the game and only got his first completion when Jemalle Cornelius wrestled the ball away from an LSU defensive back for an eight-yard completion. In the first half, Leak was just 5-18 for a paltry 29 yards.
On those rare occasions when Leak had time to throw, LSU had the Florida receivers blanketed and when the receivers managed to get open, either Leak was running for his life or he couldn't get the ball to them. When forced out of the pocket, Leak was indecisive at best, often hesitating when faced with the choice to run or throw. Those moments of hesitation were all LSU's very fast defense needed to close ground. Although he didn't throw an interception he had at least four picks that were dropped by the aggressive LSU secondary.
To combat LSU's blitz package and hard pass rush, the Gators kept trying to go to the screen package that stretched the width of the field last week against Mississippi State so successfully. All that proved was how much better and faster LSU's defenders are because where Mississippi State failed miserably to stop the screens, LSU was almost perfect.
"Their checkers covered our checkers," said Meyer, who said that if the plays are being executed properly, the all-out blitzes should play into the offense's hands and produce big plays.
The offense did have some moments with the running game, particularly from DeShawn Wynn, who came up with his best football game (16 carries, 93 yards and a touchdown) since the Miami game two years ago. True freshman Kestahn Moore also wiggled through a hole then showed a burst of speed to score on a 32-yard run that gave the Gators their only touchdown of the first half.
But the plays in the running game were overshadowed by errors in the passing game, whether they came from a line that struggled against LSU's front four, a quarterback who struggled with his decisions or wide receivers who struggled to get open.
"I think Chris Leak struggled a little bit but I think that our receivers struggled as well," said a very subdued Meyer. "I don't think we did a good job of getting guys open. There was a lot of blitzing --- we call it no deep, zero man --- and we didn't do a good job of getting off it. Obviously our throw game was non-existent and there were far too many sacks."
While Florida's defense did come up with five turnovers and five sacks for 50 yards in losses, it also showed once again that when the opponent loads it up and goes deep, the Gators are truly vulnerable. Using a game plan straight out of Tuscaloosa, LSU caught Florida in a zone and exploited it early on. LSU caught Florida with safety Tony Joiner attempting to cover Benny Brazell, a sprinter with world class wheels and 100-meter times to prove it. Brazell blew by Joiner so quickly that Jarvis Herring couldn't arrive in time to help. It was 7-0 and there was still 11:42 remaining in the first quarter.
Touchdown number two was a high arching rainbow to Dwayne Bowe, who first beat Dee Webb to the corner of the end zone, then outjumped him for the ball and a touchdown with 1:10 remaining in the quarter. The Gators were down 14-0 and on the verge of getting blown out of the ball yard.
But that's when the defense settled down. The Gators gave up 177 first quarter yards but in the final three quarters, LSU could only dent the Florida defense for 184 yards. Florida swarmed, hit hard and willed the Gators back into the game.
How the Gators made a game of it was forcing turnovers and hammering Russell. Florida finished the game with five sacks but Russell ran for his life at least a dozen other times. Jarvis Moss sacked Russell, forced a fumble and recovered the ball to kill one drive. The Gators forced a fumble out of Joseph Addai that Herring recovered to set up the touchdown run by Moore with 8:44 left in the half.
Herring got an interception in the third quarter to kill LSU's opening drive and Florida followed that with a field goal although the Gators had a chance to punch it in for a touchdown.
Defensive tackle Steven Harris tipped a Russell pass that Joe Cohen intercepted and ran back to the LSU 31 that set up Florida's second touchdown, a one-yard run by Wynn with 4:02 remaining in the third quarter that staked Florida to its only lead of the game, 17-14.
LSU would answer that with a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive for the winning touchdown. Given several chances to answer LSU's score, the Gators came up empty.
"We're not a good offensive football team," said Meyer, who admitted that his staff is still in the process of installing the offensive package seven games into the season. Florida converted just two of 16 third down conversions and six of the Gators' 10 penalties were of the offensive variety including four in the final four minutes of the game.
Just two weeks ago, Meyer had the second best winning streak for a coach in the nation at 20 games, trailing only Pete Carroll of mighty Southern Cal. In the last three weekends, the Gators have hit the road twice and come up empty both times against a ranked opponent. The toll of the two losses showed on his face and in his voice. He paused twice to hold back the emotions during his press conference. It became obvious that he is every bit as frustrated with what is happening as his impatient fan base.
Yet, even with the sting of a tough loss that could have and should have been a Florida win, there was a ray of hope, something that he hadn't seen before. He saw passion in the way the Gators fought through the tough times early on to get themselves back in the game. He saw a defense that took matters into its own hands by forcing the issues. He saw players whose hearts broke because of a tough loss.
"I saw the passion," he said. "They're starting to care about each other. Florida Gator football is really important to a lot of people and I couldn't tell you that a while ago."
The week off is needed because there is re-grouping that must be done, confidence that must be regained, and a new offensive game plan that can work must be discovered. The questions will bug Meyer during the next week and it's likely that he will do what he always does, which is take the loss personally and fight it with resolve to overcome.
What he anticipates is that this will be a week in which his team makes a choice to do all the things that are necessary to ensure that losses like this one are a thing of the past.
"If you can take something from this, I saw some I've never seen before actually act like they want to put on a Gator helmet," he said.
In the week ahead, Meyer will be looking for some players who want to give it everything they have like Jarvis Herring and Vernell Brown. Herring was so cramped up after Florida scored its last touchdown that he shouldn't have gone back in but he willed himself to play on the kickoff team. Vernell Brown was so beaten up that no one would have questioned if he had said he couldn't go anymore. He couldn't be kept off the field.
Meyer needs to ignite that kind of passion and desire in his entire team during this week off. He has four games remaining on the schedule and a season that is still salvageable even if getting to the SEC championship is probably out of the question. He needs to find more Jarvis Herrings and Vernell Browns this week and he needs them to help him lead a team that is slumping. Georgia is on the horizon in two weeks, a game that the Gators will be favored to lose. That is the kind of game that presents Meyer with an excellent opportunity to turn a huge corner in the progress of this football program. A quality win over a quality team like Georgia wouldn't remove the sting of losses to Alabama and LSU, but it would certainly send the right message that he's got the program on track.
"This team needs to learn how to win a big game," he said.
The Georgia game is a big game. He's got 14 days to get the pieces back together and restore Florida's confidence. The Gators could still win nine or ten games this season. They could just as easily find themselves in Shreveport for the Weedwacker Bowl. How his team responds in the next 14 days will go a long way toward determining just where they will finish up.