Roanoke's Around the SEC: Bye Week 2

The defense gave a good effort last Saturday against a revitalized Florida offense that had steamrolled highly ranked Georgia the week before. The Gators did not steamroll us – and they tried. The first goal line stand was really impressive – the second was equally spirited, if not as successful.

Vince Taylor and Adam Butler were forces to be reckoned with in the middle. Unfortunately, our offense put the defense in a pretty bad place with three turnovers in our own territory. Still, the defense essentially accomplished its goal – it refused to succumb to Florida’s running game. As expected, we stuffed the box and made Treon Harris beat us with his arm. To his credit, he succeeded. Still, in addition to Butler and Taylor, a number of Vandy defenders deserved gold stars for their play: Nigel Bowden, Darreon Herring, Zach Cunningham, Stephen Weatherly and Ja’Karri Thomas, to name a few.

We took Florida’s best shot and the defense acquitted itself respectably – especially for the first three quarters. The offense, by contrast, provided a beautiful first quarter drive – and then fizzled the rest of the night. Once Florida could study the tight end sets, the Gators basically had solved the riddle. I am tired of beating the horse – and besides, the horse is dead – but it really comes back to who our OC wants us to be on offense. His philosophy is to pocket pass, run north-south and, in a perfect world, throw downfield timing patterns. He may humor us with misdirection and QB roll-outs on date night, but basically it is just not who he is. And against good SEC defenses – and Florida’s defense is studded with future NFLers – we can expect about what we got last Saturday night.

McCrary was excellent on the TD drive – but Florida decided to hit him in the pocket every chance it could after that score. The tactic eventually took a toll. Ralph Webb did not have his best outing – his two costly fumbles were the story of the game. Some of the difficulty running is the predictable play calling, but credit is due to the very strong Gator defense. Given our difficulties on the ground, I was left wondering why Jerron Seymour did not get a chance to carry the ball. All he did was score three touchdowns against the Gators in Gainesville last year.

Patton Robinette looked sharp in late relief work – he was 7 of 10. McCrary was 14 of 35 with two INTs versus the first team D. Latevius Rayford caught 8 balls, and Scheu and Dudchock hauled in five apiece. The offense was not a total loss – we had 17 first downs. But the four turnovers were deadly and we did not fool the Gators after the first quarter – 10 points will not win many SEC games.

With the Florida loss we can say good-bye to the bowl streak at 3, the November win streak at 10, and the useful pre-bowl practice sessions to which we have grown accustomed. We made progress after the last bye and hopefully we will take another step forward this week. Here is my wish list for the final two games:

- just once this year I would like to see us open the game and run until we are stopped. Last Saturday after our opening 21 yard gash, without being stopped, we turned to the throw (and threw at Hargreaves, no less); two plays later, we punted;

- running for the edges instead of always north and south – our ground attack has been surprisingly good considering opponents know they don’t have to worry about the edges. Imagine what might happen if we made the entire field a running option?

- rolling out the QB and encouraging him to run – we love to strand our signal caller in the pocket and it is pretty clear McCrary has been instructed to run as a last resort. There were several plays against Florida where he could have picked up significant yardage with his legs and chose not to. Again, leaving the QB in the same spot makes him a sitting duck on blitzes – and it is worse when we fall behind (which seems like always.)

- an end to the three man rush on third down. I love our defensive talent, but we have been sub-par in blitzing and sacking opposing QBs. When we rush only three it is even worse. Eventually, an SEC quarterback finds an open receiver after five seconds. This hurt us last Saturday – and it is a root problem in our third down conversion stats.

- a way to force turnovers. It is inexplicable how often a ball on the turf goes to the other team (or slides out of bounds.) It is beyond bad luck. We need to force turnovers – blitzing effectively would be a start. The fear factor for opposing QBs remains relatively low – so they routinely turn in poised, effective “above normal” performances. As Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the nose.” Our basic philosophy seems to ensure that our QB gets punched a lot more often than our opponent’s.

A losing teams’ fans dwell on the negatives. There are some positives, too – the tight end set is really a good wrinkle. Florida figured out after a while that we were throwing out of it much more than running – so they kept a better eye on our receivers after the opening quarter. But the concept is good – and kind of different. The goal line stands in the second quarter were monsters – truly impressive performances by an improving D-line. The youth of this team is also undeniable – it is not a valid excuse for being 3-7, but there is a lot of good football ahead of these young Dores. Unfortunately, none of it will come this December or January.

And let’s face it, those days were pretty fun.

* * *

Huge, intra-conference games abound this week in the SEC. Number one Mississippi State travels to Tuscaloosa to face a physically beat up Crimson Tide. Vegas likes Bama by 8½. I find Vegas generally very wise – but this is an insulting spread against a true #1 team. The question is: did Bama’s draining OT win over LSU energize the Tide, or burn out part of the engine? MSU came out of the gates flying this year – but, frankly, hasn’t looked quite right since subduing LSU, A&M and Auburn all in a row. Since becoming number 1, they have looked a bit tight – and maybe being 8½ point underdogs will help in this regard? My main thought on Bama is that they – and Blake Sims – grew up in that final drive in regulation in Baton Rouge. I think the Tide builds on it. Take MSU and the 8½ points – but Bama wins this game. Pick: Bama 27, MSU 23.

Steve Spurrier against Florida is always worth the price of admission. Spurrier would relish knocking the Gators out of the chase for the East crown. Still, the Gamecocks have now blown three double digit leads in the fourth quarter in SEC play. Even with a bye week to right the ship – the Gamecocks will have their hands full with the suddenly-relevant Gators. Who knows why Florida was off-kilter in the first half of the season? They have looked plenty good the last two weeks – while South Carolina has done a slow death spiral. Of course, on paper the Ol’ Ball Coach still has a lot of offensive firepower to work with. The Gamecocks have thrived against lesser defenses, but Fowler, Hargreaves, Morrison & Co. should handle them. Pick: Florida 34, South Carolina 24.

Auburn looked past A&M last week and paid a heavy price. This week they face a Georgia squad that could have scored 90 points in Lexington – and that was without their best player. Todd Gurley is back for Georgia this week – and Vegas likes the Bulldogs by 2½. Georgia is still hard to figure after clobbering Missouri, but then flopping hard against Florida and also losing to South Carolina. On paper, Auburn is better than Georgia, but the Tigers’ collective psyche has to be in nose-dive mode after they essentially gave away their season last weekend. There may be 600 yards rushing in this game – and the team that can stop the run occasionally will win. The over/under is 68½. I like the over – the rest is basically throwing darts. Pick: Auburn 41, Georgia 38.

Missouri’s charmed season receives a test at College Station this week. While Mizzou takes the East by winning out, they face a revitalized A&M squad that saved its season with a win over Auburn last week. As an odd quirk, Mizzou is 3-0 on the road. Vegas likes A&M by 5½. The key here will be whether Mizzou’s d-line can disrupt A&M’s passing game. They probably will – but not quite enough. Pick: A&M 28, Mizzou 24.

Kentucky’s fast start has been derailed – and UT can reach .500 with a win. Kentucky still has not won on the road. They won’t win this week either. I wish we could have that game in Lexington back. Meanwhile, UT had a bye to let that rousing comeback against South Carolina sink in. It is not just that UT is getting better (and they are) – their SEC schedule was heavily front-loaded. Pick: UT 34, UK 16.

Arkansas remains in search of that first SEC win. The feisty Razorbacks have had both Bama and MSU on the ropes before losing close. Arkansas is, unfortunately for them, the least talented team in the best division in all of college football. LSU will have mental and physical hangovers, itself, coming off an overtime heartbreaker. Quietly, however, Les Miles’ team has improved dramatically as the season has progressed. After going to the wire with Ole Miss and Bama in back to back defensive struggles, LSU’s stingy D will be an interesting match-up against Arkansas’ running game. Vegas likes Arkansas by 2 – and the home crowd will be a big plus as Arkansas searches for Coach Bielema’s first conference win. Pick: LSU 23, Arkansas 20.

Our coaches get to scout MSU this week. We head to Starkville the following Saturday for a pretty major trap game (between Bama and Ole Miss) for MSU. There is no post-season bowl game for us this year – but the way the schedule lines up, we end the season with two bowl games anyway.

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