By: Mark McLeod
Two milestones in the Urban Meyer era were achieved with the Gators 21-20 victory over Tennessee. Despite several mental mistakes, Florida proved that they could remain on task and focus on trying to win the game one play at a time rather than despondent on missed opportunities. They also finally won a big game on the road. Last season, Florida was a woeful 1-3 on the campus of opposing teams, which included a blowout in Tuscaloosa and a heart-breaking loss to the old head ball coach himself in Columbia.
Their lone victory was in Lexington against a Kentucky team that outscored the Gators 21-0 in the second half after Florida had built a commanding 49-7 lead.
The Gators also answered several offensive questions that required addressing. While very competitive, Southern Miss and Central Florida are hardly quality programs that provide all of the necessary tools to compete in the Southeastern Conference.
Could the Gators, now over one year into the Meyer era, take the fight on the road to Knoxville? Could Florida's inexperienced offensive line get the job done against a program with the athleticism and speed of Tennessee? Would the Gators get quality play from their running back(s)?
The answer to each of those questions was a resounding- yes.
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. Presently, these are 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. Both have been very good this season. Rissler was named co-offensive player of the game after his performance against the Volunteers.
Medder (6-5 315) was seemingly lost last spring. However, he noted that a change had to be made. The redshirt junior worked very hard in the weight room- the result being a stronger, more physical lineman. Medder graded out high against Tennessee, earning membership in the champions club. He has been the most pleasant surprise on the front this 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 though has played very well. In fact, the junior was named co-offensive player of the game by the Florida coaches for his effort against Tennessee.
Overview: Tennessee was able to get some pressure on Leak. You simply can't expect an inexperienced offensive front to shut out Tennessee, especially in only their third game of the year. Much of that pressure seemingly came from the inside. Florida's guards Drew Miller and Jim Tartt were the only members of the offensive line who were not named to the champions club after playing Tennessee. Overall though, their play was very good and encouraging.
In fact, the Big Uglies have been extremely impressive opening holes for the backs. The Gators have rushed for 156 yards per game, 4.4 yards per carry. Running back DeShawn Wynn only lost two yards against Tennessee in 22 rushing attempts. That tells me they're knocking people off the ball. The group has allowed five sacks this season. Last season, a Florida offensive line that returned four starters had allowed 14 sacks after just three games.
What two things should we look for on Saturday? Overall improvement and an opportunity to look over the second team guys for some much needed depth.
Quarterback Chris Leak (6-0 207) leads the nation in passing efficiency. He is 55-84 for 799 yards and ten touchdowns, which is the most in the country. Leak has thrown three interceptions and averted disaster in Knoxville after a poor decision to throw a ball that would have been six points had it not been for a personal foul penalty against the Vols. Leak has also had a few dropped passes, one of which would certainly have gone the distance against Central Florida. Leak has improved his decision making when running the ball too. Obviously, Meyer took exception to Leak's slide, short of the marker. I doubt that we'll see that once again. In the past, Leak seemingly always chose the wrong time, direction, etc when trying to leg out something positive when receivers weren't open. There have been some improvements in that part of his game though and I'll bet that he is more conscious of the yard marker.
"I am more comfortable mainly because the guys around me are more comfortable," Leak said. "We have a better understanding of what we are supposed to do, and we anticipate things better. By doing that, we are able to play faster and attack defense the way we want to. Being prepared has a lot to do with it and the guys have done a great job of knowing their assignments. That builds confidence in everyone."
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. Tebow is the Gators second leading rusher with 92 yards on just 17 carries, a 5.4 yard average. The freshman forces
Senior DeShawn Wynn (5-11 238) may be on the verge of nailing down the starting job at running back. Sophomore Kestahn Moore (5-10 212) figures to receive the most playing time as a reserve. Wynn is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, while Moore is averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. Both are also solid receivers out of the backfield.
The unsung hero of this offense is senior fullback Billy Latsko. He is an outstanding blocker who gives Leak additional time to throw, Wynn and Moore the ability to get past the linebacker, and is often spotted downfield knocking around a defensive back tp clear a path for the Florida receivers. Latsko (5-10 232) has no carries and no receptions even though he provides tremendous effort and would certainly provide a spark to the offense and another headache for defensive coordinators.
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. Ingram has hauled in six passes for 87 yards. He picked up 38 yards on a big play against the Vols.
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 17 receptions and four touchdowns. Fellow senior Jemalle Cornelius (5-11 185) only has six receptions, but brings a tremendous 22.0 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 is now the Gators second leading receiver with 11 receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
The Gators reserves don't have the experience, but aren't lacking in speed and talent. 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: Leak and his receivers combine to make-up a terrific blend of experience, speed, and talent. The running game has been the biggest question mark, but a significant part of that question appears to have been answered.
I would think this to be an outstanding week to find out who else is ready to step up for the Gators at wide receiver. The coaches would like to see a little more of Fayson, Cooper, and Nelson.
Three other questions to be answered this week: Can Wynn string superb games back-to-back? Who will emerge as Florida's reserve running back? Has Tebow improved with regards to the passing game?
On the injury front…The Gators appear to be without freshman extraordinaire Percy Harvin this week. High ankle sprains are tricky. If he can't practice by Thursday, it's doubtful the coaches would want to rush him back and risk potential further damage with Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Georgia laying in wait.
Turnovers and penalties…Florida is a minus (-1) in turnovers this season. That does not sit well with Meyer, who said a week ago that he is looking to make corrections. They committed only one last week, which was an improvement.
Florida is the league's most penalized team with 26 flags for 180 yards. Many of those are indeed justified. However, it's my opinion that the Southeastern Conference office performs a workshop in keeping the flag in their pocket. Let the kids play. It's not the officials job to be the focus of the game and there were a couple of calls that went for the home crowd. Let's hope that doesn't happen this or any other weekend. Call the obvious and leave the grey areas for the kids to play through.
Production…Perhaps the best news is the Gators success in the red zone and on third down conversions. Florida is 8 of 9 (88.9%) in the red zone. Terrific, huh? Better yet is that all eight of those scores have gone for touchdowns. Only Vanderbilt has performed better. Then again, they've only been in the red zone four times. The Gators are also tops in the conference in those critical third down conversions with 23 of 37 (62.2%).
The record…Thus far, Florida's first eight opponents have a combined record of 18-6 (75%). Take away Florida's three victories and the record swells to 18-3 (85.7%). Beyond Kentucky, the Gators will face four teams (Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Georgia) that have combined to post an 11-1 record. Three (Auburn, Georgia, and LSU) are ranked in the top ten. Alabama is #26.
Analysis: Preparing for the Florida offense will keep Kentucky defensive coordinator Mike Archer busy. Production has greatly improved from Leak, the h-back, and then there is the all-important Tebow factor. They have to prepare for Tebow to throw the football too. Archer has to prevent the Wildcats from getting lulled to sleep thinking run everytime he steps on the field. If they don't- Boom! He'll pull up and drop one to a speedy Florida receiver.
I would also expect Archer to see if the Gators have successfully resolved with their interior line issues. The Vols were able to get pressure on Leak with much of that pressure coming from the inside. Florida will work to improve this week and be tested once again on Saturday.
The Gators lead the SEC in total offense (449.3 ypg), passing offense (293.3ypg), first downs (70), and third down conversions (62.2%).
Florida committed only one turnover against the Vols. They must protect the football, as Kentucky is second in the league (+4) in turnover margin. The Wildcats have picked up a league best six fumbles.
The Gators have played three teams that are well coached. Head coach Rich Brooks, defensive coordinator Mike Archer, defensive backs coach Steve Brown, special teams coordinator Steve Ortmayer, quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders, offensive coordinator Joker Phillips, and offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins all bring a wealth of experience to the Wildcats.
By Larry Vaught
As it has most years, this has been a problem area for the Wildcats. Mississippi's offense was non-existent in a loss to Missouri but got almost 400 yards against Kentucky. Louisville shredded the Wildcats for 600 yards. "Our run defense concerns me but think we are a better run defense team than a year ago," Brooks said. "I am concerned about it, but I see us getting better and improving. As different as Texas State's offense was, this is similar but more difficult because Florida will pitch the ball on option more. It will not only take a physical defensive effort, but it will take extreme discipline. Our players have to know what to do and then they have to go out and play full speed doing it. We've not shown yet we can do that."
Kentucky thought it had a rising star in tackle Myron Pryor before he hurt his foot in the first half against Louisville and missed the second game. Last week he still was limited but had a sack, interception and two fumble recoveries. He's expected to practice all week and play much more at Florida. Kentucky will also use Ricky Abren, Ventrell Jenkins, Lamar Mills and Corey Peters at tackle.
Junior linebacker Wesley Woodyard is UK's defensive leader and leading tackler. He's the emotional leader on the field and doused both defensive coordinator Mike Archer and athletics director Mitch Barnhart with water after the win over Mississippi. "They have both stood behind us and deserved to have some fun, too," Woodyard said.
Outside linebacker Johnny Williams is athletic and playing better. The Cats have lacked consistency at middle linebacker with 2005 starter Braxton Kelley, highly touted freshman Micah Johnson and part-time starter Ben McGrath all playing.
The secondary has a big-hitter in safety Marcus McClinton. Safety Roger Williams had to deal with the shooting death of his brother earlier this season but had four tackles last week. Cornerbacks Karl Booker and Trevard Lindley have been steady after the first game. UK depends on freshmen for depth as six of its top eight secondary players are freshmen or sophomores. "That's scary against Florida, but they have to learn," Archer said. "They can all make plays, but this offense will really test them."