First The Solidity And Then The Statement

For three quarters, the 2005 Florida Gators showed their best selves. Then, with one decision late in the fourth quarter, Urban Meyer sent a message that will hopefully reverberate throughout 2006 and beyond.

The story for most of this Outback Bowl against Iowa was that the Gators did the things they did best in the 2005 regular season. This wasn't a transformed team, it wasn't an overwhelming offensive team, but it was a team that played to its strengths and within its capabilities as well as it possibly could. At their best, the 2005 Gators were a defense-first team that thrived when its front seven was knocking the snot out of the opposition. That ingredient was a core part of Florida's winning recipe against Iowa. Another essential component of Florida football this past season was a clean, efficient performance from Chris Leak. The junior quarterback didn't need to be spectacular --- not with his defense consistently smothering Drew Tate and locking down Iowa's receivers downfield. Leak merely needed to move the chains, manage the game, and make the handful of clutch plays he needed to without committing turnovers.

Mission accomplished.

Leak was exceptional on third downs, throwing short sit-down routes just past the flags to keep Florida's defense fresh, and therefore supremely effective. He threw two beautiful passes to Dallas Baker The Touchdown Maker, especially a ballsy and accurate pass with one second left in the first half. That play was particularly significant because it immediately erased the touchdown the Hawkeyes scored on the previous series to creep within ten points just before halftime. Leak made enough momentum-sustaining and momentum-changing plays to put everyone else on his team in position to succeed. Leak set up Chris Hetland field goals (one of them made), he set up his defense, and he set up the ground game, which had a more-than-respectable 169-yard day at the office.

The third main component of winning Florida football also resurfaced in this game: key special teams plays. Jemalle Cornelius' early blocked punt set a positive tone, took pressure off the Florida offense, and fed the fires of an already-invigorated defense. In all three phases of the game, the Gators "brought to the dance what brung them." As Urban Meyer found out throughout the course of his first full season in Gainesville, you can't remake a team all at once. You start with what you have, make the most of it, see what needs to be changed, and pound the bejeezus out of the recruiting trail in preparation for season number two. This win over Iowa was so impressive precisely because the best dimensions of this 2005 team's personality shone through; Florida and Meyer didn't try to re-invent the wheel --- they merely reaffirmed their strengths, and said strengths were good enough to beat a Kirk Ferentz-coached football team.

It was said after the Tennessee game, and it bears repeating after this satisfying, revenge-gaining Outback Bowl win: the difference between Ron Zook's UF teams and Urban Meyer's Gator teams is that Meyer's teams have a superior attitude that translates into better consistency and a more airtight profile. Two years ago, the Gators got an early 7-0 lead over Iowa in the Outback Bowl, but that lead didn't last. This year was an entirely different story. Sure, you can point to a ragged fourth quarter and say this game was closer than it should have been, but when it really mattered, the Gators didn't give anything away, and in today's college football world, merely avoiding mistakes puts you ahead of the competition. Yes, this offense didn't do much when all was said and done, but with 14 total first-half points from defense and special teams, Florida --- by watching Iowa self-destruct--gained a commanding position it never fully relinquished. Chris Leak stayed the course, while Drew Tate blinked; highly-esteemed coach Urban Meyer had his boys intense, focused, and ready; highly-esteemed coach Kirk Ferentz saw his guys doze through three quarters. All in all, this was a true 2005-style win for Florida: a superior defensive effort, a low-mistake offense, and special teams plays at the right time all made the difference.

But there was one more big dimension to this game, which came after those first three quarters of exceptional football. After the 2005 Gators showed their stuff, Meyer made a statement with an eye toward 2006. The best thing I saw in Florida's football coach during his Utah days--before he was hired to come down to Gainesville --- was that he had more than a few stones. His Utah team played with attitude and his staff coached with considerable guts and creativity throughout 2004, especially in the Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh. When asked why he calls trick plays in games, Meyer responded by saying, "I do stuff just to bother people." That kind of attitude reminds you of You Know Who, but with his offense facing so many struggles and transitions this season Meyer was limited in his ability to go to the grab bag.

Next year, Meyer will have the stability, the familiarity with his personnel, the comfort level with SEC coaching, and the overall confidence needed to go for some jugulars and let loose with his play calling. He gave Gator fans a sneak preview with his brass-balls fake punt late in the fourth quarter, with Iowa having a tidal wave of momentum. From a raw percentage standpoint, it was a poor time to call a fake punt. The risk clearly outweighed the reward, and in a regular-season SEC game, chances are Meyer never would have DREAMED of making that kind of decision. But since bowl games are one-shot deals that easily double as volatile emotional cocktails (consider all the ridiculous comebacks pulled off by teams that trailed by huge margins throughout the bowl season), Meyer knew he needed to turn emotions on a dime; moreover, the fact that he had a two-score lead gave him just enough cushion to realize that even if the play blew up in his face, he'd still have a lead going into the final few minutes. But aside of those (properly made) calculations, the best and biggest dimension of that fake punt is that it told every Florida player (and every recruit within the fold, ready to strap on the pads next year) that the Gators, in future years, will be a team that wins by dint of its own excellence, not by merely avoiding mistakes.

The 2005 season and the first three quarters of the Outback Bowl were all about winning in a minimalist way: few mistakes, awesome defense, better attitude. But with one fake punt, Meyer hinted at a transition from the old year to the new one: in 2006, Florida football must get back to winning with brilliance. The defense carried the water this season, but next year, the balance of the offseason focus --- and the in-season responsibility --- must shift to the offensive side of the ball. Much of the equation for a dominant 2006 lies merely in sustaining the defensive excellence and special teams playmaking capabilities that carried Florida to victory over Iowa. But the missing piece to the puzzle is a potent offense and a more aggressive, attacking style. And while the fake punt is officially attributed to special teams, Meyer's gamble certainly suggests that he wants his team to win more as a result of scoring, and less as a result of ball control.

For three quarters in the 2006 Outback Bowl, you saw solidity. Then, near the end, you saw a statement. The solidity carried the Florida Gators to a big win. The statement will hopefully signify a breakout year in 2006.


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