Banged up Gators defense must rally against South Carolina
As much as Saturday night’s 42-28 loss at LSU stings, the truth is that Florida’s 2019 season will be defined by what happens over the next month.
A home date with Vanderbilt seems a likely win, but the other games include what essentially is a round-robin for the East title with fellow contenders Georgia and current SEC East division leader Missouri, with the Gators the only team in the round-robin that won’t play one of the round-robin games on their home field.
Before the round-robin, however, comes a tricky trip to South Carolina that screams trap game, even if South Carolina’s stunning win ‘tween the Hedges should command Florida’s full attention.
The Gators have won in Columbia only once this decade — and perhaps not coincidentally — the Gators won the SEC East that season. All of Florida’s goals — winning the East and reaching Atlanta, having a chance to go to the College Football Playoff — remain in front of them. If Florida wants the round-robin to be meaningful, it has to find a way to win Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gators’ margin for error, however, remains quite small.
The Gators continue to struggle running the football and the offensive line is simply not talented enough to dominate anyone up front. Florida’s carelessness with the football nearly cost them games against Miami and Kentucky, and while they were much better protecting the football in Baton Rouge — their lone turnover of the game, Kyle Trask’s 4th-quarter red-zone interception, proved decisive. If the Florida offense that went blow for blow with a great LSU team for 3-plus quarters shows up the rest of the season, the Gators will be able to compete with anyone.
But the truth is there will likely be a game where Florida’s offense doesn’t fire on all cylinders and when that day comes, Florida will need its defense, which had been exceptional until Saturday night, to win the day.
The defense will need to return to form as quickly as next Saturday at South Carolina, where the Gators will be met by another hostile crowd and a Gamecocks football team brimming with confidence after upsetting No. 3 Georgia in Athens.
It won’t be easy for Todd Grantham and Florida.
Florida’s pass rush, which entered Baton Rouge ranking 3rd nationally in sacks, 5th in sack rate and 6th in defensive havoc rate, looked mostly ordinary Saturday in Baton Rouge, especially once their 2 star defensive ends, Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, left the game with injuries.
Greenard left after 1 possession, and while the Gators still managed some pressures in the first half with Zuniga in the game, the pass rush disappeared when Zuniga appeared to re-injure his left ankle in the 3rd quarter. Florida will likely be without both stars in Columbia, which means Florida will be tasked with generating pressure on the Gamecocks with one of true freshman Khris Bogle, redshirt sophomore Zachary Carter and junior Jeremiah Moon. All 3 have shown flashes this season, but none was effective Saturday night, a big reason LSU managed a staggering 10.6 yards per play against a defense allowing only 4.5 yards per play entering the game.
Greenard and Zuniga aren’t just missed in the pass rush.
Florida relies heavily on both — and in particular Greenard — to set the edge against the run.
Florida entered the LSU game with a top 20 rushing defense, ranking 8th in stuff rate. All of that vanished against the Tigers, who bullied Florida’s front for 218 yards rushing at almost a 10 yard per-carry clip. Florida’s defensive tackles were AWOL too — especially exposed on this 57-yard run by Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first half, where both tackles were easily turned, opening a run gap Florida’s linebackers couldn’t fit:
— #BusinessIsSuspended (@FTBeard11) October 13, 2019
LSU wasn’t a particularly strong rushing offense entering the game, and a week prior, the Gators had just stuffed an Auburn rushing offense that entered The Swamp ranked in the top 15 nationally in rushing offense. The absence of Greenard and Zuniga shouldn’t make that much of a difference in run support, but early returns are that it does, which should a concerning wake-up call to the defense.
South Carolina isn’t LSU, but the Gamecocks have 2 excellent running backs in seniors Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster, and Carolina will undoubtedly be creative in the run game, especially if freshman signal caller Ryan Hilinski can’t play due to the knee injury he suffered in the win over Georgia.
Dowdle has been good all season, running for over 100 yards in 2 of 3 SEC contests, including 102 against Alabama’s usually staunch front. Feaster has been a bit more explosive, averaging over 5 yards a carry, and with his Clemson pedigree, he has played more than his share of big football games. Plus, the Gamecocks are coming off their best back-to-back rushing performances of the season, with 247 yards on the ground against Kentucky and 143 more vs. Georgia. While South Carolina averages only 4 yards per carry this season, they’ve averaged 4.76 in the past 2 games, a big reason they’ve won both despite uncertainty at quarterback.
South Carolina will have to run the ball, and playing at home, they’ll dare Florida to stop them, using the run game to set up downfield shots to All-SEC wideout Bryan Edwards, who terrorized Georgia on Saturday and is precisely the type of fast, physical player who has given Florida’s secondary problems this season. If Hilinski plays, South Carolina should have enough of a threat of balance to keep Florida’s defense on its heels.
Even if Hilinksi can’t go, the Gators will certainly need to both set the edge and contain the quarterback better. Joe Burrow eluded pressure and made plays with his legs throughout the first half of Saturday’s game, and South Carolina’s 3rd-string quarterback, former 4-star recruit Dakereon Joyner, is more than capable of making plays with his legs, as Georgia learned Saturday.
The loss of players like Zuniga and Greenard would hurt any defense in America. But Florida should be in a position where they’ve recruited well-enough to overcome the challenge those injuries present against an opponent like South Carolina. Unfortunately, the Gators previous staff didn’t recruit well enough — and the Gators will rely on a host of young players who will be fighting to keep the dream of a special season alive Saturday against the Gamecocks.
Time after time, Florida’s defense has answered the bell. They were knocked down Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
How they respond against South Carolina will help define what the season can hold, and after a much-needed bye week, set the stage for what the Cocktail Party and Georgia game means.