Time For Gators To Get Defensive Again

Before any big game, it's always important to zero in on the biggest of the big keys. And in Florida's season-ending battle against the hated rival from Tallahassee, it's hard to think that the number one priority for the Gators will be anything other than their defensive front, plain and simple.

Sure, Chris Leak will need to perform. Yes, a maligned receiving corps will have to come up with clutch plays, and the ground game has a chance to succeed against a Seminole defense that started the season strong but has faded dramatically down the stretch run of this 2005 season. Those and other factors loom large in this game as well. But if pressed to come up with the top priority for the Gators in this game, it all starts up front on the defensive side of the ball.

Ask yourself: when this team has played its best in 2005, and has looked like a legitimately formidable team, what unit is playing really well? The answer has to be the defensive front. The signature win of the year --- over a Tennessee team that hadn't yet given up on its season and would beat LSU in Baton Rouge a few weeks later --- was won up front on the defensive side of the ball. And an impotent offensive showing against LSU didn't translate into a blowout only because the Boys of Old Florida --- and specifically, those boys up front --- played their tails off.

With an extra week for physical healing --- and not just emotional regrouping ---the best hope for Florida in this game, which is blessedly played on a home field Urban Meyer's team has been able to defend this year, lies with its defense's ability to set the tone and get a raucous Swamp crowd inside the heads of FSU's struggling offensive playmakers. By smacking around Drew Weatherford, keeping FSU's anemic ground game under wraps, and preventing the visitors from gaining any real confidence, the Gators --- with a defense-first mentality much like the one displayed against the Vols --- will chart their safest, surest, and most high-percentage course to victory. Offensive fireworks are nice, but if you want to be coldly analytical about things in the buildup to Saturday's kickoff, Florida needs defense a lot more than offense in this game. Getting a clean, no-turnover performance from Leak would prevent FSU's shaky and shaken offense from getting cheap points, and it would dramatically reduce the options Jeff Bowden would have at his disposal. Why not make the Semis crash and burn on the strength (or more appropriately, a lack thereof) of their own offense, which managed but one touchdown at Clemson and has spiraled downward in November after some mid-season successes? What had become a bounce-back season in Tallahassee is now feeling a lot like other recent seasons for Bobby Bowden, the man who passed Joe Paterno a few years ago but who might now be passed back by the Penn State icon.

Indeed, as much as the Gators have been finding life difficult recently, Florida State has had an even worse time in an ACC whose elite teams (and one wonders whether FSU is an elite team within the ACC or not) have been stumbling and fumbling, unlike the LSUs and Auburns of the world. An honest look at this game would suggest that Florida State needs more help to win than Florida does. The Gators will need to gift-wrap some points for the Noles' sagging confidence to rise from the nothingness that currently pervades the FSU locker room. So with all that in mind, it goes back to the basics, and the first big win of Urban Meyer's career against Tennessee: defense-first, particularly up front; then, no turnovers or really bad penalties; third, let the crowd do its job against a listless offense from a visiting team very unsure of itself.

Florida needed to give South Carolina a victory in a game where --- not so coincidentally --- the defensive front failed to make key stops in third-down and goal-line situations. If the defensive front leads a renewed effort that has fewer mistakes, the rest should take care of itself, and the Gators will win their second straight game against the Semis.

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