Saturday, September 6, 2008

Florida 26, Miami 3

I haven't clicked over to my favorite Gator message board since the game ended, but I suspect when I do I'll find some disappointed Florida fans. This was supposed to be the game the Gators used to release 23 years of pent-up hostility toward the Hurricanes. Chris Leak, Ciatrick Fason, Steve Spurrier, they were all going to be avenged tonight against lowly Miami. Instead, Florida won in relatively unimpressive fashion, grinding out a victory against a young Miami team.

There were certainly some problems, a few annoyances Urban Meyer and Co. are going to have to address in their two weeks off before the Tennessee game. But I saw quite a lot to like, and more than a few things to love.

Chief among the latter was the defense. Florida's maligned defenders held Miami to just the three points, and the Hurricanes needed a 50-yard field goal to score those. The Gators surrendered only 79 passing yards and 61 rushing yards. You can chalk up a lot of Miami's aerial struggles to a young QB and inexperienced receivers, but the Hurricanes have a couple of talented running backs. (One of whom, to be sure, injured himself and was removed from the game at the end of the first half)

Miami was only able to convert 5 of 15 third downs. Third down was an area where Florida's defense desperately needed to improve this season, so that's a nice statistic.

All of the good feelings generated by those statistics need to be ameliorated by the knowledge that Miami was an awful offensive team last year and shouldn't be much better this season. But the Gators couldn't even stop bad offenses last year. Ole Miss was 91st in the country last year in total offense and the Rebels still managed to put up 390 yards and 24 points on Florida. Michigan was 68th in total offense and the Capital One Bowl still turned out to be a colossal humiliation for the Gators. So dominating a pathetic Miami offense is still encouraging.

The Gators didn't force a turnover, and they didn't get much pressure on Miami quarterback Robert Marve until the fourth quarter. Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap both registered sacks on Miami's final drive, and Dunlap horse collared Marve behind the line of scrimmage on another play which wasn't technically a sack. (A penalty should have been called) I was fairly annoyed at the lack of a pass rush early, but Miami didn't have the talent to challenge Florida's secondary deep. Marve completed a few short passes, and he made good use of his legs on a few occasions, but Joe Haden, Wondy Pierre-Louis and company weren't an issue.

Florida did struggle offensively. The offensive line looked like they had never seen a blitz before, and Tebow was running for his life most of the first half. He didn't handle the Miami pressure all that well, occasionally rushing throws and coming up with inaccurate passes. He missed Louis Murphy on what should have been a long touchdown, and he completely botched a third and long throw to a wide open Brandon James.

But if Tebow showed that he still has room to grow as a quarterback, he also flashed the skillset that should impress NFL scouts. He ended up 21 of 35 for 256 yards and two touchdowns. The first TD came on a 14-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez, thrown while Tebow was rapidly backpedaling from Miami defenders. He still put more than enough zip on the ball to slip it over the hands of the Miami secondary. And while he didn't always handle the blitzes well, he escaped from pressure far more than most QBs would. Miami couldn't quite bring him down.

The Gator receivers continue to worry me. Louis Murphy ended up with excellent numbers, four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, but he dropped two other passes and should have made a better effort on the earlier missed connection. Carl Moore made one huge catch for 28 yards, but that was pretty much the extent of the receivers' contributions.

Hernandez, on the other hand, was beyond impressive. In a year and two games with Florida, he has shown wide receiver-quality open field aptitude, and that continued tonight. Aside from the touchdown catch, Hernandez also caught a short pass and romped through the Miami secondary for 38 yards before being tackled. He could definitely make up for the loss of Cornelius Ingram.

Most troubling was Florida's rushing game. Namely, there wasn't one. Tebow carried the ball 13 times for 55 yards, and Percy Harvin, returning to the lineup after missing the opener, rushed five times for "just" 27 yards. (A 5.4 yards per carry average is only awful when you typically average about nine yards per rush, as Percy does) But Chris Rainey picked up just 13 yards on three carries, while both Jeff Demps and theoretical starter Kesatahn Moore posted negative yardage. Conspicuous in his absence was Emmanuel Moody, who sprained his ankle against Hawaii and might still be injured.

As mentioned above, the Gators get an off week before going to Knoxville on September 30. It's a well-timed break. Harvin will likely be at full speed before the Tennessee game, and hopefully Moody can use the time off to heal. I also hope the coaching staff takes the time work on pass protection and blitz pick-up. Tennessee's defense is going to be every bit as tough as Miami's.

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