Meyer Knows Winning Takes Precedence

The spread option offense hasn't been scrapped and Urban Meyer is not about to admit that his high tech, Star Wars scheme that rewrote the record books at Bowling Green and Utah is a failure in the Southeastern Conference. The bells, whistles and gadgetry were gone in Saturday's 14-10 win over Georgia but that is because winning is the ultimate trump card.

Lighting up the scoreboard is fun and certainly a huge plus when it comes to recruiting but the first year Florida football coach knows that the appeal of gadgets and blown scoreboards is far less important in the great equation. You can score a ton of points and folks can proclaim you the next great offensive guru but if you don't win, you don't have a job and if you aren't winning, top recruits will go somewhere else. So score one here for practicality.

Using the bye week to re-evaluate the entire offense and his personnel, Meyer came out with a scaled-back scheme against Georgia, one that had plenty of spread but only a little bit of option. He re-discovered tight end Tate Casey in the passing game, put the blocking talents of Billy Latsko to work and added the lightning of Markus Manson to go with the thunder of DeShawn Wynn. The package quarterback Chris Leak works with was compacted and simplified to better fit what Leak does best.

Decribed as the square peg trying to fit into the round hole, Leak looked uncomfortable and miserable in the losses at Alabama and LSU. Saturday against Georgia, in a package that was plain vanilla compared to what Meyer was doing last year at Utah, Chris Leak looked more like the Chris Leak of the previous two years. He got his feet set. He saw more of the field. He took care of the football. Mostly, he just got the job done in a very efficient manner.

Meyer loves the concepts of his spread option offense. In the long haul, he knows it will work at Florida and that it has a chance to light up Southeastern Conference defenses. That will have to wait, however. For now, the issue is one of being practical. Winning is far more important than style points.

During the off week prior to Saturday's Georgia game, Meyer and his staff went totally practical. Starting from scratch wasn't an option nor was installing a whole new offensive package. The idea was to take the elements of the offense that work and find a way to adapt them best to the personnel on hand.

"We looked at our personnel," said Meyer during Sunday morning's media conference call. "We have one tight end basically and one fullback. We have a couple of tailbacks developing and we have three experienced receivers."

So during the week an effort was made to better integrate Casey into the offense. He had three receptions for 28 yards in the first seven games. Saturday, he caught three passes for 21 yards and a touchdown, his first score of the season. Florida threw to him twice on the opening drive, a 13-play, 80-yard scoring march that marked the first time this season the Gators have scored on their opening possession.

Florida sent Georgia a message on that drive by throwing to Casey twice. Even though both passes were incomplete, Georgia was forced to adjust its defense to cover the Florida tight end closely the rest of the game.

Fullback Billy Latsko, who struggled at linebacker earlier in the season, was inserted as a lead blocker. Latsko spent the day with a helmet in the chest of Georgia's middle linebacker as Florida's straight ahead running game flourished.

DeShawn Wynn, who emerged two weeks ago at LSU as the main man at tailback, continued to pound away inside the tackles but he wasn't alone in the running game. Markus Manson finally found his way into the lineup, offering a burst of much needed speed to complement Wynn's power.

With Leak, there was still the spread only it was minus the option. Meyer said it was all about trying to "utilize what our players do well." The result was a quarterback who obviously felt comfortable with the plays he had to work with and the personnel he had on the field.

"We tried to evaluate things that our quarterback is comfortable doing and how we could attack Georgia's defense," said Meyer. "It might have looked a lot different, but we added a few more running plays."

Florida didn't light up the scoreboard against Georgia, but the Gators were good enough on offense to score all the points the defense needed. Brandon Siler said after the game that the defense had told the offensive team earlier in the week "just get us 14 points and we'll do the rest."

Florida got two touchdowns and had a chance at a third to end the half only to fumble away what would have been the stiletto plunged deep into Georgia's heart. The Gators played it close to the vest in the second half and let the defense win the game rather than allow the offense to risk turning the ball over. It was better to play hold it with the 14 points than risk a fumble or an interception on the minus side of the field.

Make no mistake about it, Meyer is not comfortable with an offense that only scores a couple of touchdowns a game but the bottom line is scoring more points than the other team. Winning the game is more important than winning the battle of the stat sheets.

"I just sat and watched the week before," said Meyer. "The hand we're dealt right now and the nature of the SEC is teams are winning 6-3. Alabama is undefeated and for two games they scored one touchdown.

"Is that what we want to become? No. Do we want to win games? Yes. So that was a decision made and there are still a lot of plays that weren't run in that game, maybe a little more risk and potential for big plays but we had to win that game."

In his first year at Utah, Meyer led the Utes to a 10-2 season that wasn't all high tech, bells, whistles and running up the score. When it came time to decide between the crowd pleasing offense or the practicality of conservative play and defense, Meyer chose the latter.

"My first year at Utah we went 10-2 and beat Brigham Young in a snowstorm, 3-0," he said. "We won the bowl game, 17-0. Winning cures everything and I am comfortable with this. I'm comfortable with winning and having players have an opportunity to win. Ultimately, we have to generate more offense than we have this year."

More offense would be a good thing, but for now, he'll settle for winning, no matter how he's got to do it.

MINCEY STANDS OUT: Jeremy Mincey, the senior defensive end from Statesboro, Georgia, probably made the defensive play of the game when he body slammed Thomas Brown for an eight-yard loss on a toss-sweep on a first down from the Florida 33. That play killed the momentum of a methodical, grind it out drive that had taken the Bulldogs from their own eight yard line.

Faced with second and 18, Georgia couldn't convert against the Florida offense and settled for a 52-yard-field goal attempt by Brandon Coutu that plunked against the upright.

On Georgia's final possession, Mincey batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage, teamed with Jarvis Moss to chase down quarterback Joe Tereshinski and then forced Tereshinski into a bad pass on fourth down.

Meyer said that Mincey's on the field production is a direct result of the hard work on the practice field by the 6-4, 267-pound senior who came to Florida from a junior college two years ago.

"He is absolutely one of the hardest working young men I've ever been around," said Meyer. "What you see on game day, it's not like he just flips it on for game day. He's like that in practice. That's the reason he's so successful."

Mincey and safety Reggie Nelson, another junior college transfer, are exceptions and not the rule when it comes to using junior college talent at the highest Division I levels. Meyer said that there aren't many success stories.

"I think that we would much rather be built with 90-95 percent high school football players, especially at Florida where there is a legitimate curriculum where you have survive at this great university," said Meyer. "You have to be a guy who can handle it and a lot of times guys to junior college for reasons like they struggled in high school. You're very leery. You'd rather take a high school player. In 20 years of coaching they number of jucos that have had great success is minimal. Mincey is a great example of one who did work out."

MANSON AND CASEY: Meyer said that the expanded roles of Manson and Casey in Florida's offense have everything to do with better efforts on the practice field. Manson had nine carries for 49 yards Saturday, his first significant action this season when a game was actually on the line.

"He (Casey) is a much better player than he was in the spring and the summer," said Meyer. "He's just continuing to improve. It wasn't because of the bye week… he's just continuing to improve. It wasn't because of the bye week. He was just practicing better.

"Same thing with Markus Manson. Markus Manson is a better example of a guy who's practicing better and taking care of the ball and that's why he's playing a little bit more now."

With Manson, the issue was more ball security than anything else. Meyer preaches ball security as one of the elements that is key to victory. He is a real believer that teams that don't turn the ball over don't lose games.

"Markus Manson is a perfect example," said Meyer. "He's holding the ball much better. His ball security … if I showed you some pictures or video tape of him running in the two a days and early in the season, you would see why he hasn't been playing.

"Now if you see how high and tight he is with the football now, you see why he's getting more carries. The same thing with DeShawn Wynn. He carried the ball loose and low. If that happens, the first thing that happens is they come out of the game and then the same thing, we try not to give our quarterback too many vague rules where to go with the ball. Teaching the guys to hang onto the football and knowing they won't play if they don't, and second put your quarterback in position where he's not throwing interceptions."

LATSKO'S EXPANDING ROLE: Meyer sees Latsko taking more of an active role in the offense in future games. Whereas Latkso struggled at linebacker, he's proven to be an excellent blocker in the offense and someone who will soon see the football in his hands.

"He's a very good blocker and at some point we're going to hand him the ball as well," said Meyer. "He catches the ball well out of the backfield."

While Latsko had difficulty at linebacker, Meyer saw on tape of last year's games that he had a real contributor on the offensive side. The need for an extra blocker made the switch back to offense necessary.

"I didn't realize what a good football player he is," said Meyer, who added, "What you try to do is take your best football players and get them on the field somehow. We had depth issues at linebacker and Billy was struggling at linebacker. We obviously needed some help on offense. He's a fine fullback and he does a lot of good things for us."

MORE ON THE OFFENSE: Meyer said that the conservative game plan against Georgia had much to do with what was seen on film in Georgia's win over Arkansas. Arkansas didn't have much success trying to go wide against Georgia's fast defense and active, fast linebackers, but the Razorbacks did have success in a straight ahead game.

Does that mean Florida is abandoning all the offensive principles that made Utah's offense the best in the country when Meyer was coaching there?

"We're certainly going to keep some spread element but a lot of it depends on the game we're playing," said Meyer.

What Florida will be doing in the final games of the season has everything to do with the defensive schemes the Gators will see, although Meyer did make it clear that he will continue to make sure the offensive decisions better fit Florida's personnel.

This has always been a player's offense and we try to utilize what our players do well," he said.

Meyer is aware that the defenses he's facing are much faster than those of the Mountain West Conference and the Mid-American Conference so that means less of a lateral game and fewer empty-backfield situations.

"I think what we did is evaluate the SEC conference," said Meyer. "This is new to me being satisfied with scoring two touchdowns or trying to score three touchdowns in a game.

"I'm not comfortable with that but I am comfortable with winning and putting your players in the best possible position to win even if that means being more conservative."


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