Gaining the Edge: Florida and Tennessee fight to have best running game
To win the Tennessee – Florida game, it appears you have to do one simple thing: Win the ground game.
The Florida Gators have won nine straight games in this SEC East rivalry and guess how many of those games they gained the most rushing yards?
You got it. All nine.
Actually, one would have travel all the way back to 2002 to find a Tennessee – Florida game where the team that won the battle on the ground failed to win the game. The Vols outrushed the Gators 99-94, but failed to beat Florida in a 30-13 loss.
So who has the edge in the running game this year? Who will the most important aspect of this rivalry? Let’s take a look.
RBs: Matt Jones, Kelvin Taylor
YPG: 201; 7th in SEC
Jones and Taylor aren’t often discussed as premier running backs in the SEC, but they certainly are no slouches, either. At 6-foot-2, 235-pounds, Jones is an absolute load for opposing defenses and someone head coach Will Muschamp says just gets bigger as the game goes on. His backup, Kelvin Taylor, isn’t nearly as big as Jones but he possesses great all-around qualities in a running back. His speed, strength and field vision allow him to run both inside the tackles and on the outside with ease.
The Gators’ rushing attack struggled in their previous game against Alabama, but it was huge part of their success in their first two games, combining for 496 rushing yards against Kentucky and Eastern Michigan.
A big boost for the Gators’ run game will be the return of starting left tackle DJ Humphries. The junior offensive lineman is arguably the most talented player on Florida’s offensive line and his presence will be crucial not only for the protection of Jeff Driskel, but also in run blocking.
Speaking of Driskel, he’s also a threat to run the ball in addition to Jones and Taylor. Although he’s struggled passing this season, Driskel is most dangerous when he presents both a running and passing threat to opposing defenses. In 2012 when he was at his best, Driskel ran for 408 yards and four touchdowns. When the Gators last visited Neyland Stadium, Driskel ran for 81 yards en route to 336 rushing yards as a team against the Vols in a Gators’ 37-20 win.
This season, Driskel’s involvement as a run option in the offense has come along slower than in the past, but he improved in his last game, leading the Gators with 59 yards against Alabama. Muschamp believes Driskel’s role in the running game is a key to success this weekend.
“I think his involvement in the run game will help our football team,” Muschamp said. “He’s a very good athlete, he’s a very good runner and that’s something we’ll continue week-to-week depending on schematically what the other team is giving us. We’ll add him in the running game.”
Something else that should work in the Gators’ favor is the Tennessee run defense. The Vols rank dead last in the SEC, allowing 169 rushing yards per game. They have surrendered at least 100 rushing yards in all four games and are undersized up front.
Jones believes his size will be a huge advantage for the Gators, especially as the game wears on.
“They’re not so big up front. They don’t get a tough push. Behind them, their linebackers have played really good,” Jones said. “It’s very exciting being a big back because when you get downhill people are going to get tired of tackling you. They might be ready to tackle you the first, second quarters, but third and four quarter they get tired…just like similar to the Kentucky game, people get tired of tackling you.”
RB: Jalen Hurd, Marlin Lane
YPG: 126.75; 13th in SEC
Coming into the season, senior running back Marlin Lane was the resident veteran alongside a college football rookie, true freshman Jalen Hurd. Hurd entered college with a ton of hype and was expected to factor into Tennessee’s running game this season, but so far he’s exceeded expectations.
Already in just his fifth collegiate game, Hurd is the Vols’ featured back and has completely taken over the running game. At 6-foot-3, 223-pounds Hurd has the frame to withstand the beating feature running backs must endure and impressively, he’s continued to get better with every passing game.
As his carries have risen, so has his production. Hurd just achieved his first 100-yard rushing performance last week against a physical Georgia front seven. And all of this with an offensive line in front of him that features five new starters and has already endured one season-ending injury to a starter at the beginning of the season.
The Gators coaching staff recognizes just how much talent Hurd possesses.
“Jalen Hurd had over a hundred last week, ran hard…instinctive guy who’s a very good football player that we recruited,” Muschamp said. “He gets the ball north and south. He was a tough, downhill runner…pushes the pile in the run game.”
To compliment Hurd, senior Marlin Lane is an experienced runner who ran for nearly 1,200 yards over the last two seasons.
As mentioned before, the Vols offensive line is a definite liability for the running backs though. With five new starters, they’re incredibly thin and could easily struggle against the Gators’ run defense, which is one of the better units in the SEC. The key for Tennessee will be to keep the Gators’ defense on the field, especially after seeing Florida’s run defense succumb to the physicality of Alabama’s run defense in the second half two weeks ago.
Who has the edge?: I feel very comfortable in saying Jalen Hurd is the most talented of the running backs featured in this game. He’s big, fast and isn’t easy to bring down. However, I believe Florida has the edge in rushing on Saturday. The Gators running backs give you a little bit of everything with Jones and Taylor. Combine that with a dual-threat quarterback, a much more experienced offensive line and a stingy run defense, they have all the pieces to win the rushing battle once again in this rivalry.
With Hurd in the backfield, he’s still capable of having a big game individually, but I don’t think it’ll be enough this year to overcome Florida’s rushing as a team.