One can sort-of feel sorry for Ron Zook these days, as the pressure is showing. Yes, he willingly took the job and followed the Legend. And he has, most observers think, actually recruited better overall than Steve Spurrier did his last couple of years. Certainly Zook's third Gator team has rising stars and a bright future, especially as long as gifted quarterback Chris Leak stays around. Relative youth on the roster is the main reason why Florida is just a short step behind the league leaders this year, so at most other places fans would be looking ahead. But patience is not a virtue in Gainesville; anything less than the best is meaningless, and with two losses the Gators are sliding out of SEC, much less BCS, contention. Plus, Zook has yet to beat Florida State or Miami, and #3 status in their state is just unacceptable. Yep, the pressure will only grow no matter what happens this weekend. And should the Gators finally lose one to Georgia next week…
There's not a better young quarterback in the country than Leak, a sophomore with all the tools—arm, agility, speed, and smarts. He is already ninth (!) in UF career pass yards with 4,006 and has only played 20 games, throwing for 200+ a dozen times. So far in '04 Leak has hit 62% of his throws with 15 touchdowns and five picks, for 1,571 yards, which is how Florida ranks 1st in the SEC and 18th nationally this week in passing offense. The stats of his receivers look like full seaons for most SEC pass-catchers. O.J. Small has 31 grabs for 365 yards and four scores, but the big-play guy to watch is Andre Caldwell with 24 receptions and 357 yards. He's also a threat on the reverse. Dallas Baker (18, 249, 3 TD) rounds out the three-wideout package. Not that UF really needs a tight end to either catch, or to assist a mammoth offensive line in blocking. If the listed heights are legit, the Gator linemen are all 6-6 and 6-7 and average out at 318 pounds. That tally tilts somewhat to right guard where converted DT and senior Mo Mitchell stands 6-7, 370. The unit's leader is center Mike Degory, nominated for both the Outland and Rimington awards, with a team-best 32 consecutive starts. This front wall not only guards Leak but opens the way for talented runners Ciatrick Fason (598 yards, seven touchdowns) and DeShawn Wynn (190, five). Fullback Billy Latsko has eight catches out of the backfield, showing just how completely balanced this offense can be. Florida has scored on 33 of 77 possessions. And the best parts to this unit are underclassmen. Defense:
When Zook took over it was acknowledged Florida would put more emphasis on the defensive unit. But it was the hiring last year of Charlie Strong that has solidified this unit, and stopped the revolving door of defensive coordinators in Gainesville. This is a capable and even explosive squad, leading the SEC in turnover margin and able to score points on their own. The Gators are particularly fierce on the ground, ranking tops in the SEC and 45th in the country at 127 rushing yards allowed. No back has yet to break 100 yards against Florida this season. Not surprisingly the strength is at linebacker, where MLB Channing Crowder has put off-field issues behind and dominated on-field play. He has 49 tackles in six games, has intercepted a ball, recovered two fumbles, and collected two sacks. But he's not the only big-play maker of a group that includes two good choices at SLB, Earl Everett and Brandon Siler, and 250-pound WLB Travis Harris, a former defensive end. The four-man line has both size and speed in abundance, and averages 275 pounds across. It's a group coming into its prime after a rebuilding job in 2003, anchored around sophomore tackles Marcus Thomas and Ray McDonald. The latter is an active 285-pounder with six tackles for losses and four hurries. Jeremy Mincey and Joe Cohen won the defensive end jobs, but backup Steven Harris has the team lead in sacks with three. The most overall experience is in the secondary with senior SS Corey Bailey and junior FS Jarvis Herring. CB Demerice Webb and Herring have four of the team's ten interceptions between them, and their picks are a big reason why the Gators have such a one-sided turnover average midway of the season.
As the offensive stats show, Gator P Eric Wilbur doesn't get a whole lot of work, but he is good for a 41.9-yard average with five balls downed in the red zone and no blocks. Coverage is much-improved this year, too. PK Matt Leach has a 84-PAT streak going and has made four of seven field goals, the longest 40 yards. Caldwell and Chad Jackson have taken turns returning kickoffs, with Vernell Brown gaining almost ten yards every time he gets a punt.
Florida leads 31-17-2 in a series that dates back to 1923 when both schools were members of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Both were also 1932 charter members of the Southeastern Conference, and somehow ended up paired as ‘permanent' rivals starting in 1954 and going through 1993 when the rotating schedules began. Interestingly, the teams did not play from 1943-53, after State had won seven-straight games in 1936-42. The Gators have controlled the rivalry since then, with five-game win streaks from 1966-70, 1974-78, and 1987-91. State has not won consecutive games since 1957-58. The Bulldogs led 6-3 in Starkville, while the Gators are 18-7-1 in Gainesville.
The Last Time: September 29, 2001
Mississippi State's first visit to ‘The Swamp' was no vacation as the Bulldogs were swamped 52-0, with the rout televised nationally by CBS. #2-ranked Florida piled up 640 yards of total offense, including 507 passing yards—the most ever allowed by a MSU defense. The Bulldogs were only briefly in this ‘game,' because after forcing a punt from the MSU end zone the Gators struck. Quarterback Rex Grossman actually ran, a yard, for the opening TD, but would go on to throw five touchdown passes and complete 22 of 31 tosses for 393 yards. State did mount one first-quarter drive but missed the field goal try, and Grossman responded with two TD passes in the period. He threw two more scores in the second period, one a 60-yard strike, for a 35-0 halftime lead. The second half got no better, as Grossman threw the fifth and final TD in the third period and Brock Berlin connected with 1:45 left in the fourth. State's only bright spot was a blocked field goal by Josh Morgan. The Bulldogs managed just 44 rushing yards and 170 through the air. The margin of defeat was the worst of the Jackie Sherrill Era.
Did You Know?
*The last time State and Florida played was also the last time the Bulldogs were ranked. State went into that game #21 by Associated Press. *Florida claims the fourth-largest enrollment in the nation, with 48,000 students last year.
*Florida began the 2004 season with 90-consecutive home sellouts, fourth-longest streak in the country behind Nebraska (262), Notre Dame (173), and Michigan (120).
*There is one Mississippian, Tavares Washington (Greenville/Delta CC), on the UF roster. 76 Gators hail from the home state.
How They Compare:
They're both sophomores, but that is where the comparison ends. Leak is the best young triggerman in the league and will only get better. Conner lost a freshman year at wideout, and has nothing like the protection his counterpart enjoys.
Running Backs: Florida
Put Norwood behind that line, with a deep-passing game to keep foes honest, and he'd surely pile up the same stats. As it stands, Fason and Wynn are a tag-team to fear.
Offensive Line: Florida
Nothing else to say, other than at least some Bulldog blockers are getting healthy. Let's hope they stay that way for next week.
The names change, the results are the same whoever runs routes for Florida. Let's see how many three-wideout sets State uses this week, or if tight end Butler is full-speed.
Defensive Line: Florida
State's strongest point still can't quite match up, though the Dog front is getting the hang of this scheme. Bad news for East offenses: seven of eight Gator linemen will be back in '05.
Crowder may be the SEC's best ‘backer. Heck, just being best on this team is respect enough. Croom is tired of his veterans' lack of tackling and will give three younger LBs their chance. Talk about a starting baptism of fire.
Life must be fun for Gator DBs playing in support of that front-seven. State will keep mixing and matching and developing for the future here.
Kicking, covering, returning…UF is better across the board. But we're starting to see signs of life from State special teams, at least in practices.
Actually there's some reason to wonder here, as the Bulldogs are rested and the team's attitude remains interestingly upbeat. But they, and we, and the Gators, all know Florida is just a better ball team, and recent off-field distractions don't change that.
It's always possible Florida will be looking ahead to next week's must-win matchup with Georgia. Except that in this case, that will only further motivate the Gators to turn in an impressive tune-up as the staff surely wants a week's worth of momentum. State is practicing all sorts of things to try—stress, try—to offset obvious UF superiority in speed and size, because Croom is simply instilling another aspect to the ultimate program attitude that no game shall ever be conceded regardless of matchups. So since he can't and won't say it, we will. Let's watch for signs of continued progress this week, keep fingers crossed nobody (QB and linemen particularly) is hurt, and hopefully see more things falling into place for November.