It is a combination of things that has kept the Florida offense under wraps. A good portion of the blame can be heaped on team health. When Bubba Caldwell went down with a broken leg in the Tennessee game (game three on the schedule), Florida lost its one threat that scared the bejabbers out of every opponent. Caldwell was so fast and so dangerous that it left Chad Jackson in single coverage where there are few defenders capable of matching up. Without Caldwell, Jackson has been double-teamed every game and safeties have played a few yards closer to the line and that's helped stuff the run.
But it isn't just Caldwell. There's Jemalle Cornelius who hasn't been the same since a high ankle sprain in the Alabama game (game five). Jackson has been fighting through hamstring problems and other aches and pains that have limited his effectiveness the last four games. The hamstrings have limited his ability to turn on the after burners so he's mostly been found on the receiving end of dinks and dunks. Dallas Baker went down with an ankle in the Georgia game after a brilliant start in Florida's first four offensive series.
Tailback DeShawn Wynn has been bothered by a nagging shoulder injury that limited his effectiveness early in the season. He's had two excellent games back to back but he's been limited in practice during the week. Markus Manson was going to get some serious playing time at LSU but he landed with the point of the football in his chest and he bruised his sternum. He finally got on the field healthy for significant playing time against Georgia.
On the offensive line, tackles Randy Hand and Lance Butler have played healthy, but center Mike Degory has battled through some MCL and ankle problems. The real health issues have been at the guard position where Tavares Washington has missed all or parts of four games with a nagging elbow injury and Jim Tartt has been unable to play a complete game. Tartt has continuing problems from shoulder surgery in the offseason that have been complicated by a recently sprained ankle that caused him to miss the Georgia game completely.
Then there is quarterback Chris Leak, who sprained his shoulder in the Alabama game. He's been limited in practice since then but the off week prior to the Georgia game allowed him to heal up. He played his best game in weeks against Georgia.
When you throw in the learning curve to go with the lingering effect of the injury situation, it's no wonder the offense has struggled. Mullen remembers what it was like at Utah in year one when the Utes went through similar injury problems and the problems in picking up the offense, particularly with the offensive line. There were games that year --- BYU (3-0 win) and the bowl game against Southern Mississippi (17-0 win) --- that had to be won by defense and special teams.
Throughout that first year at Utah, there were struggles in the offensive line and also with quarterback Alex Smith, a pure drop back passer since his high school days, learning the nuances of the spread option offense. There were stretches during games when everything clicked for Utah and a few games when the Utes ran up a bunch of points, but there just wasn't that satisfying win where the coaching staff knew that everyone on the offense was on the same page.
All that changed in the first game of the 2004 season. The opponent was Texas A&M, which would go on to face Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl at the end of the year. Utah roared out of the gate with a 41-21 win and never looked back. The Utes went 12-0 with at least 35 points in 10 of the 12 games.
"At Utah we really struggled with the line the first year," said Mullen, who was Utah's quarterback coach. "Then in the second year, the offensive line just got it and when they got it, kinda everybody else got it at the same time.
"The lights just went on for everyone at the same time. It was that first game of the second year when it happened and all of a sudden, it was like wow! We've all got it now and then played with tremendous confidence from then on."
Do not for one second underestimate what confidence does for a team with an offensive scheme this intricate. It only takes one or two players lacking confidence to throw the entire offense out of whack and for the Gators, the confidence levels in one or two grew to several over the three-week stretch which saw road losses at Alabama and LSU.
The off week between LSU and last Saturday's Georgia game factored in as critical for Florida's staff. Chief among the goals was to somehow regain the team's self-confidence on the offensive side of the ball. That started with the offensive line.
"We spent a bunch of time cleaning everything up in that off week," said Mullen. "We showed them not just what Georgia was going to do but the mistakes they had made in previous weeks. What we tried to do was really slow it down so they could see it and grasp a better picture of things so if Georgia came out and played us in some brand new defense --- which they didn't do --- we wouldn't be overwhelmed or unprepared. We got in a good week of practice and when we got the final work on all the looks they [Georgia] had shown on film, our guys were very confident that they knew what they were doing and that they had fixed the mistakes they had been making."
In particular, the week off allowed the guards to get up to speed with Butler, Hand and Degory. Entering the Georgia game, Florida had given up 24 sacks, most of which came straight up the gut and over the guards.
In his Monday media day press conference, Coach Urban Meyer stressed how important it was for the guards to hold their own in the middle, particularly with a quarterback who is only 6-0 tall. When the pressure comes straight in his face, it's very difficult for Chris Leak to get the ball to an open receiver.
"When this happens out here [hands stretched outward to show pressure from the edge where the tackles protect] at least he can step up in the pocket and throw the ball," said Meyer. "When this happens here [hands moved inside] and that's the result of center and guards with penetration … the guards have to play better to give our quarterback the opportunity to step up and throw the ball."
Mullen got the play he needed from the guards against Georgia and because the guards made all their assignments, the entire line functioned in a very efficient way. Sophomore guard Drew Miller was so effective that he was chosen the Southeastern Conference Offensive Lineman of the Week.
Florida scored on its opening two drives and had another outstanding drive end just before the half with a fumble at the Georgia six. Had the Gators scored on that drive, it would have been a formidable 21-3 halftime lead.
Instead of the big halftime lead, the Gators led just 14-3 and with the injury situation, Florida went conservative the rest of the way. It was senseless to try to throw the ball on Georgia's very fast secondary when the Gators didn't have one of its playmaking wide receivers (Cornelius, Baker and Jackson) at full speed.
Still, Florida ran the ball very effectively, gave up just one sack and got 75 percent completions without an interception from Leak. That kind of result was made possible by the solid play from a line that didn't bungle assignments and held the Georgia pass rush at bay.
"It takes solid play all the way across the front," said Mullen. "What I really think we saw was not just solid play but great communication. I don' think we had one snap where the right guard went one way and the left guard went the other. Everybody was on the same page for once.
"It just takes a while for everyone to get it, especially on the offensive line. Even with a veteran group it takes awhile, usually longer for them than anyone else on the team. They have to function as a group and for them to work like one as a unit, it takes awhile sometimes. I think we're finally really starting to see what they can do."
The way the Gators took it to Georgia on those first two possessions and on that last possession of the first half, there is hope that Florida will grow in confidence the way that Mullen saw his Utah players grow after that first game of the 2004 season.
"Once the lights went on for them, they played with so much confidence the rest of the year," he said. "They knew what they were doing and they knew they would get the job done. It makes a real difference when all of your guys know they're going to get the job done the moment they step on the field, whether it's for practice or for a game."
The confidence gained in the Georgia win showed in Monday's practice, too. Mullen thought he saw a team starting to realize just what is possible.
"Coming out of this [Georgia] game, maybe we've gained some of that confidence," he said. "Maybe they knew what to do and what was going on in our other games, but it showed in the way they were coming off the ball and the way they played that they didn't have that inner confidence.
"They started the last game playing with the kind of passion and emotion you see with confident teams. That's something we're going to be building on all this week so we can go out and play with confidence and play hard and fast on every play. The team as a whole, you can see that the confidence gained in that win and how it showed in practice. Today [Monday] we were just a bunch of guys with a little more snap in our steps. Maybe we don't have it all figured out yet, but when we move ahead from now on, I think you'll see how we do it with a lot more confidence. We're not where we need to be yet, but I think we're going to see a difference."