Getting it Done in the Trenches

With three games left in the 2008 season, the Gators are about where they thought they would be when the season began. High expectations were everywhere, but most knew a successful season would hinge on the play in the trenches. Most of the offensive line returned that was a big part of 2007's offensive success, but the defense had a lot of questions to be answered. Many have been answered.

The Gators came in to the 2008 season needing answers up front at all but one position. Junior Fox end Jermaine Cunningham was an established starter from last season, everyone else had to earn their wings.

Even the coach was new up front as Dan McCarney came in from South Florida to replace the much lauded Greg Mattison. Mattison left McCarney with a very talented group, albeit still inexperienced.

Nine games into the season and without a doubt, the play up front on defense has been a huge part of the success for a Gator team that is currently ranked fourth in the BCS poll that will determine who plays for a national championship. The Gators ended the season ranked 41st in "total defense" in 2007, they now stand at 14th in the current 2008 "total defense" rankings.

McCarney has been able to play nine or ten guys a game for the last several games and he believes that has helped keep the heat for 60 minutes on the opposition. He also believes that his personnel has been able to really play off of each other and that he can get different things from different players along the line during a game.

"That is what is such a great feeling about it," McCarney said about winning like the Gators have in the last several weeks. "Everyone is playing well and everyone is complimenting each other. The chemistry right now on this football team and the confidence is as good as I have ever been around."

He is getting boosts from unexpected places. In the last few weeks, junior Brandon Antwine and sophomore Torrey Davis have returned to the lineup giving him more depth than he had to start the season on the inside of the line. They have stepped up their play and look to be more of an asset as the season progresses.

"I am happy to see Brandon Antwine and Torrey Davis play more (Saturday)," McCarney said. "Both of those guys have probably showed the most improvement because they have played the least on the defensive line and they are playing more and getting better."

The defense has improved as a whole and not just in yards as specified by the "total defense" numbers. Added pressure up front has allowed a team that finished 71st in the country in "pass efficiency defense" a year ago to now rank 14th in the country in the same category. In 13 games last season, Florida finished with 20 forced turnovers. In nine games so far this year, Florida has already eclipsed that number with 21.

With all of the improvement, McCarney is still ready to get out there and teach and watch even more of that improvement to happen every week. He wants to see his young guns step up and start making a few more big plays.

"We had one missed tackle on the defensive line (Saturday), but we are capable of making more big plays and we need to do that," McCarney said. "It's nice to come out with a great road victory in this conference and capture the SEC East championship and know that we can still get a lot better. They aren't embarrassed about their play but they know we can get better and we have to and will this week in preparation for South Carolina."

While the defensive line has pure statistics to show for it's improvement from last year, the offensive line can be proud of the fact that the staff came into the season wanting to prove they can run the ball with a more conventional fashion than having a quarterback and wide receiver dominate the rushing stats. With that in mind, this version of the Gator offensive line has far exceeded the numbers from last season in regards to running backs running the ball.

It doesn't seem to matter who they line up in the backfield right now. The Gator offensive line is opening holes and blowing people off the line of scrimmage and the Florida's running backs have accounted for 1,093 yards on 164 carries (6.8 yards per carry) and have 10 touchdowns in the first nine games. Through 13 games in 2007, the Florida running backs carried the ball 136 times for 761 yards and scored six rushing touchdowns. As a group, they averaged 5.6 yards per carry.

One of the promising things that has happened is that the Gators have gotten some commanding leads this season and have been able to substitute in on the offensive line. Marcus Gilbert was inserted in for an injured Carl Johnson during the game and the line didn't miss a beat.

"We are playing well now and how we thought we would play," Offensive Line Coach Steve Addazio said. "We are coming together and getting a lot of quality reps together and it is great. Marcus is getting healthy with his ankle and got a fair amount of snaps so that is good."

Sophomore starting right guard Mike Pouncey is the team's back up at center. He was moved at the end of the game to center to get some repetitions. Sophomore Mo Hurt played some guard

"Mike Pouncey has played some center and is real interchangeable," Addazio said. "It was good to get back in there and get game snaps at center. We are firing right now. Marcus has played some guard and tackle, Mo at guard, Carl is playing well."

The Gators have developed some consistency on both lines of scrimmage. Namely, they are more physical up front and they are playing their assignments on both sides of the ball and getting better at it each and every game. The old saying goes, "Football is a game won in the trenches". If that adage is right, the Gators should be winning several more games before they are done in 2008.

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