Even when offense struggles, Florida's defense shines
On a Saturday when Arkansas and Ole Miss combined for 105 points and Alabama muscled its way to 30 points against then-No. 2 LSU, Florida’s nine points on perennial SEC bottom-dweller Vanderbilt stood out in a negative way.
The No. 11 Gators, currently 8-1, have at least five games left in the 2015 season, including challenging contests with No. 16 FSU and the SEC West champion (No. 2 Alabama if the season ended today). A lack of offense might have some fans bracing for a disappointing finish, but the No. 12-ranked defense in the FBS will keep UF in every game going forward.
For Florida’s veteran defense, which returned seven starters from 2014, getting minimal assistance from the offense is par for the course. Last season, the Gators managed an unlikely 10-9 win over Tennessee. The 13-1 Seminoles topped UF 24-19 in Tallahassee a year ago, but seven FSU points came off a pick-six thrown by QB Treon Harris.
This year’s showdown with Florida State will be in The Swamp, and while the Noles have a higher-ranked offense (No. 42) than most UF opponents so far (No. 43 LSU, No. 48 Tennessee, No. 67 Georgia, No. 72 ECU, No. 94 Kentucky, No. 125 Missouri), UF has already shut down a more high-powered offense, Ole Miss (No. 9) in a 38-10 victory.
The Rebels tried to drop back and throw, and UF’s defensive line manhandled Ole Miss upfront while the secondary locked down all receivers, holding the conference’s top wideout, Laquon Treadwell (68 catches, 1002 yards, 7 TD), to only 42 receiving yards on five catches.
The Florida defense’s primary issue has been bringing down big, bruising backs like LSU’s Leonard Fournette, who ran for 180 yards on 31 carries against the Gators on Oct. 17. That could spell trouble in a potential SEC Championship rematch, or with Alabama’s Derrick Henry.
“That’s our fault, trying to make it all about (Fournette), which it was,” UF defensive line coach Chris Rumph said at a recent media opportunity. “I think our guys pressed a little bit trying to do some things that they weren’t accustomed to doing. We’re going to take some of the fault on that.”
If Alabama is Florida’s opponent in the SEC Championship Game, Crimson Tide RB Derrick Henry (6-foot-3, 242 pounds) poses a similar challenge to stopping Fournette (6-foot-1, 230 pounds). Until the SEC West race is decided, Florida only knows for sure it will need to contain South Carolina RB Brandon Wilds and FSU RB Dalvin Cook.
From a size perspective, Wilds (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) and Cook (6-foot, 203 pounds) compare similarly to UGA RB Sony Michel (5-foot-11, 212 pounds) and Vanderbilt RB Ralph Webb (5-foot-10, 202 pounds). Michel, who played with a broken bone in his hand, was held to 45 yards on 13 carries against UF.
Webb finished with 118 yards on 22 carries, however, 74 yards came on a touchdown run in which an umpire inadvertently blocked S Keanu Neal from making a tackle. Besides Webb’s run, the Commodores’ could manage only 101 yards on 61 other plays, or roughly 1.7 yards per play.
To be clear, no future guarantees can be made from two encouraging defensive efforts. Cook, Fournette and Henry are three of college football’s most elite ballcarriers, arguably in a class all by themselves, and have shown the ability to take over games. Cook has displayed vision and speed unlike any other running back Florida has seen this season.
The under-appreciated Wilds has run for 326 yards on 61 carries in his last three games against SEC opponents, and his performance on Saturday should be a solid indicator for how much progress the UF run defense has made.
Even after Fournette’s repeated pounding and Webb’s break-away run, the Florida rushing defense is still No. 19 in the FBS, allowing 114.4 yards per game on the ground. If opponents try a pass-oriented approach on the Gators, they’re playing into UF’s strength, as Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly (26-of-40, 259 yards, TD, INT), Missouri QB Drew Lock (16-of-39, 151 yards, 2 INT) and UGA QB Faton Bauta (15-of-33, 154 yards, 4 INT) all found out.
UF’s No. 11 ranking and low offensive output against Vanderbilt (3-6, 1-4 SEC) might make it an unlikely playoff contender, but with its high-performing defense, the Gators cannot be written off in any of their upcoming games.