By Mark McLeod
Head coach Urban Meyer and his staff has made a lot of strides since taking over the Florida program 21 months ago. Road wins have not been among them. Last season, the Gators were just 1-3 in opposing teams' stadiums.
The lone win was in Lexington against a hapless Kentucky team that outscored the Gators 21-0 in the second half after Florida had built a 49-7 lead.
First year coaches often struggle on the road in the SEC. Missed calls, missed assignments, and a general lack of understanding of just how harsh the road can be within the conference all contribute to struggles. Two springs and a full season under Meyer and staff should have provided the Gators with the knowledge and enough experience to carry out their assignments on the road. That is easier said than done. Obviously, it takes more than that to win on the road, but developing a relationship with your coaches and fellow teammates takes time and is only compounded in a hostile environment. That has now been accomplished. Can the Gators, now over one year into the Meyer era take the fight on the road to Knoxville? We'll find out a lot about the heart of this football team by the time that final whistle is blown on Saturday night.
"I knew this going into all of the research that we've put into it," Meyer said during his Monday afternoon address. "I've talked to many people about success with road games. We've actually brought someone in. I've talked to a lot of guys- guys that I respect in the business. I kind of go through the frivolous things like what time do we leave, do we wear socks or not wear socks, the whole thing. That has nothing to do with it. Tough football teams find a way to win on the road. We were not a tough team a year ago."
The Big Nasties
Last month, Florida lost right offensive guard Ronnie Wilson to an injury. Wilson had performed very well and displayed the nasty attitude that coaches love. His loss forced the Gators to move Drew Miller back inside from right tackle and move up reserve Carlton Medder. At the time, these were Florida's top five offensive linemen. It appears that true freshman Maurice Hurt (6-3 309) is pushing to add his name to the list.
Florida's two best linemen are Miller (6-5 305) and center Steve Rissler (6-3 306). The pair played together at Sarasota Riverview High School and were among the most sought after recruits in the state. Miller, a junior, made a name for himself as an Olympic lifter at Riverview. He told me that helped him tremendously with the transition to the collegiate level. Rissler is Florida's elder statesman with 13 starts. The senior moved over from guard where he player last season.
Left guard Jim Tartt (6-3 315) is the Gators' lone road grader. Tartt is still coming around after undergoing shoulder surgery last season. The sophomore is a very physical player who will seemingly be the cornerstone of the Gators on-field attitude. The player who has been under the microscope is left tackle Phil Trautwein (6-6 308). The junior protects Chris Leak's blind side and had limited experience. Trautwein has played well to date
Overview: Tennessee is a fierce Eastern division rival with fast, athletic players. Florida must establish a winning record on the road. Yes, this is the real test. The Gators worked with a silent count since after the Southern Miss game to help prepare them for the Neyland Stadium crowd. That should help. Leak has been very helpful by not holding the ball too long, as he has been known to do at times in the past. The inexperienced line has only allowed two sacks this season.
The Big Uglies have been extremely impressive opening holes for the backs. Anytime a team who puts it up as often as the Gators can rush for 173.5 yards per game- something is working. Again, I understand that they have yet to play an SEC game, but both Southern Miss and UCF will be in position to earn a bowl berth by the end of the season. We simply don't know much more than that though. This is the game where many of those questions will be answered.
Two things that I'll be looking for on Saturday: I'll be curious to see how the Florida tackles fare against their toughest competition of the season? Trautwein and Medder have less experience than Rissler, Miller, and Tartt. Finallky, I want to see how Florida fares against the Tennessee blitz? If they pick it up the first few times, Chavis and the Vols will have to resort to pressure using other means or drop more into coverage, which opens things up for the Gators.
Quarterback Chris Leak (6-0 207) has been outstanding. He is 40-59 for 600 yards and seven touchdowns. Leak has thrown two interceptions. He has had a few dropped passes, one of which would certainly have gone the distance. Leak has improved his decision making when running the ball too. He seemingly always chose the wrong time, direction, etc when trying to leg out something positive when receivers weren't open. Leak looked much improved last weekend in that aspect.
True freshman quarterback Tim Tebow (6-3 229) continues to learn about playing at this level. Tebow brings a whole new aspect to the Florida offense. He has completed 6 of 9 for 81 yards and an interception. He has also rushed for 63 yards on 10 attempts and scored a touchdown. The Vols have to spend time preparing for him though.
The Florida running game is through committee, as no one back has emerged to distance himself from the others. Senior DeShawn Wynn (5-11 238) and sophomore Kestahn Moore (5-10 212) are the top two backs and figure to receive the most playing time. Wynn is averaging six yards per carry, while Moore is averaging 5.2 yards per attempt. Both are also solid receivers out of the backfield.
Florida has a pair of athletic tight ends. Junior Tate Casey (6-7 240) has several starts under his belt and teams with Cornelius Ingram (6-4 225) to provide a terrific one-two punch. Casey is a big target who played baseball with the Gators baseball squad. Ingram played basketball for the Gators and is one of the most athletic tight ends in the nation with speed and running ability galore.
The Gators have one of the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the country. You can bet they'll rotate a lot of receivers in the lineup and all of them can play. In fact, they can flat torch you when they opt to go four or five wide. The leader of the group is senior Dallas Baker (6-3 207). Baker leads the team with 13 receptions and a pair of scores. Fellow senior Jemalle Cornelius (5-11 185) only has four receptions, but brings a tremendous 25.8 yards per catch average with him. He can move. The third starter is junior Andre Caldwell (6-1 203) who was lost for the season in this game last year. Caldwell was a little rusty in the season opener against Southern Miss, but looked pretty impressive last weekend.
The Gators reserves don't have the experience, but aren't lacking in speed and talent. True freshman Percy Harvin (5-11 180) has lit the SEC on fire. Harvin has moves and blazing speed, which helped earn him the SEC Freshman of the Week award for week two. True freshmen Jarred Fayson (6-0 202) and Riley Cooper (6-3 206) have made an immediate impression and will see playing time. Both are fast, fluid, and usually have good hands.
Overview: A terrific blend of experience, speed, and talent. And oh by the way, they're deep too. Leak has been just outstanding. He is on target and makes sound decisions. The freshmen have been responsible for failing to hold on to the ball at times. That mist be addressed. The running game has been the biggest question mark, but that question appears to have been answered. If the line passes the test- this could get ugly.
Florida is a minus (-2) two in turnovers this season. That does not sit well with Meyer, who said that he is looking to make corrections.
"Turnovers- very uncharacteristic of us and we'll be 0-1 in SEC play if we do that again," Meyer said. "We had four turnovers and we lost that battle (against Central Florida). On the year we're minus two….three of them were by freshmen, but three freshmen are playing, so that's part of the deal and we have to get that cleaned up."
Perhaps the best news is the Gators success in the red zone and on third down conversions. Florida is 7 of 8 (87.5%) in the red zone. Terrific, huh? Best yet is that all seven of those scores have gone for touchdowns. No team in the conference has performed better. The Gators are also tops in the conference in those critical third down conversions with 17 of 24 (70.8%).
Analysis: Preparing for the Florida offense has kept Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis much busier than last season. Production has greatly improved from Leak, the h-back, and the all-important Tebow factor. Furthermore, the Gators spread the ball around very well last weekend.
Florida must cut down on the turnovers. Nothing helps a team more in their own stadium than creating turnovers. It creates a monster from even the most passive crowd and allows doubt to creep onto the sideline.
The Gators have played two good teams that are well coached. However, they are no Tennessee on the road. Winning on the road begins with a mindset that is formed in practice. Florida will find out a lot about itself this weekend.
So, the questions remain…Is the Florida offensive line for real? Can the Gators keep from turning the ball over? Continued success on third down only serves to add to Florida's confidence. Can they continue to have success at this rate? Will Tennessee overcome its' losses (injuries) and be able to slow down the Gators attack?
By Randy Moore
Tennessee's defensive performance in Games 1 and 2 this fall closely resembled that curly-haired little girl from the popular nursery rhyme: When it was good, it was very, very good … and when it was bad, it was horrid.
Through the first three quarters of their opener against California, the Volunteers allowed just 158 yards of total offense and three points. In the five quarters since then, however, they surrendered 586 yards and 45 points.
To put that in perspective, Tennessee permitted just 53 yards and 1.0 point per quarter in the first three periods it played this fall, then allowed 117 yards and 9.0 points per quarter in the next five periods. How's that for a downward spiral?
It's true that Tennessee substituted liberally in the fourth quarter vs. Cal, enabling the Golden Bears to tack on 15 late points. It's also true that the Vols were befuddled in Game 2 by Air Force's unorthodox flex-bone attack. Still, Tennessee defenders must be reeling a bit heading into Saturday night's showdown with arch-rival Florida. When you allow a service academy to ring up 30 points, 22 first downs and 281 rushing yards, doubts are inevitable.
Phillip Fulmer says the Falcons deserve some credit for last Saturday's offensive outburst but adds that the Big Orange defense deserves some blame, as well.
"They were very efficient as to what they did," the Vols' head man said. "Honestly, our linebackers just missed some reads and took some dive fakes when we were supposed to have the quarterback and the quarterback when we were supposed to have some dives. The secondary support wasn't always what it could've been. And we let the fullback out a few times."
That covers just about everything, doesn't it?
Although Florida plays a spread option, Fulmer says it bears almost no resemblance to the flex-bone option Air Force utilizes.
"The flex-bone is considerably different than the spread option," he said, adding that the only common ground is that, "We still have some responsibility, as far as somebody on the quarterback and somebody on the pitch man."
Whereas the Falcons' attack relies heavily on deception and misdirection, Florida's offense relies more on spreading the defense, then finding seams in it. An even bigger difference: The Gators have vastly superior athletes running their attack.
Fulmer concedes that Florida probably has as many weapons as any team in the Southeastern Conference, adding: "Hopefully, we'll be able to slow ‘em down."
That task became significantly tougher when two first-teamers – tackle Justin Harrell (ruptured bicep) and cornerback Inquoris Johnson (nerve damage in his shoulder) – sustained season-ending injuries in Game 2.
First-team end Turk McBride will slide inside to fill the void at tackle, with Xavier Mitchell probably assuming McBride's end spot. Free safety Jonathan Wade moves over to fill Johnson's corner spot. Sophomore Demetrice Morley, a Miami native, will make his first career start against his home-state university at free safety.
Harrell's injury leaves Tennessee minus all seven starters from the 2005 front seven. The 6-4, 300-pound senior was considered an All-America candidate heading into his senior year. Johnson's injury, coupled with the preseason loss of former starter Roshaun Fellows (pectoral surgery), leaves Tennessee two players short at cornerback. No doubt Florida quarterback Chris Leak will look to exploit this weekend.
"Chris Leak does a great job getting the ball out and to the people he's trying to get it to," Fulmer noted.
The Vols did a terrific job against Florida's spread option in 2005, limiting the Gators to 68 rushing yards, 179 passing yards, 247 total yards and 16 points. Minus Harrell and Johnson, however, Tennessee's hopes of duplicating that feat Saturday night could be a pipe dream.