First of all I thought it was a gutsy performance by the Gators to stay in the game and put themselves in a position to win. It really looked like they may steal a victory going into the fourth quarter. Effort does not seem to be the problem with this team but execution is. Whether it is the much maligned offense or one or two key plays on defense the Gators just aren't making the plays. The silver lining in this game was the team did not get overwhelmed like they did on the road at Alabama and they were able to grind there way back into the game.
Ack: What were some key moments in the game?
The third down pass to Dwayne Bowe on the game winning touchdown drive was a killer. No rush and a jump ball in the middle of the field kept the drive alive or LSU kicks a field goal and the game is tied 17-17. Also Chris Jackson's punt fielded inside the ten at the five by Vernell Brown changed the field position and eliminated any chance of Florida coming back. The offense was not headed 95 yards against that defense for a game winning drive and that punt crushed the Gators.
Brady: What did you think of Urban Meyer's press conference on Sun Sports?
Coach Meyer is an emotional guy who, like many good coaches, pours every ounce of his soul into his job. Coaches who take over programs that have so many returning players fight the battle to get guys to buy in to the system. It takes time for some while others come along quicker. I think Meyer expected a lot of resistance when he got to Florida because of the way things unfolded. But many guys like Chris Leak have done everything he has asked them even if it is not the strength. He sounded like a guy who wanted this win for his team more than himself. He is however in only his seventh game as Florida coach and I was surprised by his emotion. The Florida job is more pressure than anyone of you could imagine. I played and worked under Spurrier, I knew Ron Zook very well and was around that staff every day. I know some of the things you have to deal with on a daily basis. It can be an emotionally draining grind. There is not a coach in America who could show up at Florida totally prepared for what lies ahead. This is a great job, but it is a tough job and I am sure Meyer wants quicker results for his players and the fans. The fact is Meyer must stick to the plan that got him here and his success will come next year and then on.
Ack: What happened with the offense?
Florida just doesn't seem to have an identity. They run the inside zone but the quarterback never keeps the ball to pressure the defense on the option. They run four wide and never motion to trips to get a guy loose versus man coverage. They have become too predictable and when you are very vanilla you better be able to out-athlete everyone you play. Florida is not out-athleting anyone and they are not out-scheming anybody either. I like the theory of keep it simple but the spread offense is designed in theory to be complex and pressure the defense. This offense is getting "squeezed" by other defenses and cannot make any plays. There is enough blame to go around and it just doesn't fall on the offensive line and the receivers. The backs played well Saturday but quarterback play and play calling were just unacceptable in such a big game. This game plan reminded me a lot of the Tennessee game a couple of years ago in the Swamp (24-10), it was very basic and uninspiring.
Brady: So are you calling for Leak to be benched?
No, I love Chris Leak and everything he is as a student-athlete. But if this was any other position would his play since the Kentucky job keep him in as the starter? I realize it is not all his fault but Leak looks more and more uncomfortable as the season goes along and it should be the other way around. He has lost confidence against the blitz, he is not capitalizing on the few opportunities that he gets and he is getting hit way too much to be effective. I can't seem to figure out why this staff will tell us one thing and do the other. Josh Portis for a series in each half every game is not sending the wrong message. Portis could scramble for yards pressure the defense and give Leak a couple of snaps off from getting hit. I said earlier in the season the toughest question Urban Meyer would ever have to face is should I bench Leak to run my offense or should I change my offense to fit Chris Leak. It is obvious he has not changed his offense and Chris is struggling.
Brady: So you think the problem is the system?
As a coach you do what you do and coach what you know. Here are the problems I have with Florida's offense. I mentioned the Portis issue for a series a half. I have no idea why Marcus Manson and other unproven highly recruited kids are not getting the opportunity even as slot receivers who get the shovel pass or the option. But here are some coaching decisions I have issues with. First they say on third and 12 if we have to throw short and punt because that is better than an interception. Sure, but why not say we have a route designed to pick up the first down so let's attack and move the chains. Every time this team is in third and long it looks defeated. The fourth and one's are now 1-4 on the season and the play Saturday made no sense. I realize they got the fumble on the next play but after motioning Billy Latsko across the formation no LSU player went with him. Hey toss it to the weak side the numbers are in your favor he might score. Instead they removed a guy tossed it into the teeth of the Tiger defense and Wynn got battered. Finally, the empty formation. Tennessee blitzed it, Alabama blitzed it and of course LSU blitzed it. First, if you don't have a plan for the blitz don't call empty and to their credit they motioned Wynn into the backfield in the fourth quarter to help. The only problem with that is they were trailing and LSU was backing off. UF must have an inside hot receiver who can slant when the blitz comes. It is very simple and should be an easy throw for Chris Leak.
Ack: Will this offense work in the SEC?
The million dollar question. Well, if you take the question literally and apply it to 2005 the answer is no. This offense is not working and does not appear to be getting any better. Injuries and the first year learning curve have contributed to the troubles. I do think the spread offense can work but you must be a running team with a running quarterback. If you spread to pass like the last three years then this team has a good quarterback and some talented receivers. A good coach always fits a system around his talent but I am not sure this young offensive staff has but one pitch. They have not coached long enough to know any other system than their own and they have always had success. They will continue to try to find ways to make it work in the SEC.
Brady: What about the defensive performance?
The defensive line played great. Marcus Thomas is a stud and Joe Cohen finally had a big day in the stat column although he had been playing well. Joseph Addai was tough and I thought they had a handle on him until the fourth quarter. The linebacker play and safety play was up and down. On the game winning drive for LSU they converted a third and ten to Dwayne Bowe and the safety cannot allow that jump ball. That was also probably the only bad call of the day by defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong. They did not blitz and the defensive line was tired and got no pass rush. Overall the defense was gutty and tough. They kept the team in the game and deserved a better outcome.
Brady: The secondary looks to be struggling a bit, any changes?
I told you Tony Joiner would start last week. He got burned on the wheel switch route for a touchdown so they took him off the field. It was the same play Tennessee beat UF on for their only touchdown and the victim was Reggie Lewis. Obviously the Tigers saw the tape and knew in man coverage that UF does not exchange their responsibilities so give them credit. Dee Webb gave up the jump ball against Bowe and he seemed off balance. I think Herring was terrific and really it was some big completions against UF when the Gators did not get any pressure on Russell. If safety is an issue then get Reggie Nelson back there on normal down and distance situations. You can still rotate him up for the blitz in nickel and bring Kyle or Tony in at free safety.
Brady: Any other suggestions for solutions to the offense?
This late in the season you kind of go with what you have but if you are thinking in terms of next season and Reggie Lewis and Terrence Holmes are not in the two deep in the secondary then why not move them in the open week to receiver. It would give you two tough guys who could play inside and even if they don't catch on till the last game the practice time for the bowl game and the rest of the season would deepen your depth chart in the spring. Remember no matter who they sign it's unlikely they will be here in the spring so basically it will be the same group in March. I also think Manson could be a shovel option guy but maybe he just is too deep in the doghouse.
Ack: Can Meyer adapt his system to his personnel or is it too late?
Here are some examples of coaches who have adjusted their offensive system even if for a short time to accommodate there talent at quarterback. Phil Fulmer threw the ball all over the place when he had Peyton Manning, even though he is now and always will be a three yards and a cloud of dust guy. Mack Brown had Major Applewhite and ran a pro-style attack for many years at UNC and Texas. He got Vince Young and changed up his offense and now may win the National Title. Bobby Bowden went to the spread with Charlie Ward to accentuate his strengths after being an I-pro style team for many years. Coaches can change but they usually don't do it in there first year on the job. I imagine Meyer will continue to evaluate what he is doing and look to find some answers down the stretch.
Ack: Does Meyer deserve criticism or is it too early in his tenure?
All coaches are used to getting scrutinized by the media and the fans. I think he has had a smooth ride until the last month and now the ship has taken on some water. Meyer has spent a lot of time working on things to repair the fan base of the Gator nation. I don't think this should be lost on folks right now when you critique his performance. It is okay to be unhappy and ask questions but let's not question his credibility as a coach. I hope the Gator Nation will remember how hard he worked (when he didn't have to) to get people together as one. Whether it was the students, the fans, the media or the ex-players, he reached out to all of them. Give him four years, like every head coach should get before you start the chant for his job (I am not sure anyone has done this but in case you are starting a fire Meyer website, don't). Criticism is okay and fair game but lack of support is not. Meyer wants to win as bad as any of us ex-players and fans so email him your offensive suggestions but support the program and give him time.
Brady: What's next for this team?
The open week comes at a good time for the team and the staff. It's hard to change much when your in game week mode all season so I think with the extra time the offensive staff has to look at what can get them four wins. They are doing a good job in time of possession, turnovers but they are not getting it done in the passing game and on third down. The team needs to be reminded that they have not won nine regular season games since 2001 and that rivals Georgia and FSU are still left on the schedule. You could even play the we are not out of the race card if you feel like they need extra motivation. Georgia will be very tough in Jacksonville and the Dogs will be very confident.
Ack: What is the good and the bad of UF at 5-2 right now?
Let's get the bad out of the way. First it appears that Atlanta is a lost cause but I guess there is a slim shot UF could get there. I am not sure anyone thinks this team is good enough offensively to get there anyway. With 0 touchdown passes versus Tennessee, Alabama and LSU this offense has a long way to go in a very short time. The good is that the defense which will return seven starters next season and Reggie Nelson is doing a great job of keeping the team in the game causing turnovers. Chris Hetland is solid, the defense is solid and if they get anything from the offense they could run the table and set themselves up for a high preseason ranking in 2006. The good is they can finish 9-2 and go win a bowl game and finish in the top ten with ten wins. The bad is they could finish 7-4 for the second consecutive year and this year with a first year coach and not a lame duck coach.
Brady Ackerman can be heard on ESPN radio Gainesville-Ocala on AM 900 and AM 1230. Brady's website is http://www.bradyackerman.com