Saturday, September 20, 2008

Florida 30, Tennessee 6

(Full disclosure: I missed most of the fourth quarter of the game so I could go to a Royals game with the family.)

That out of the way, I have to admit that I found this a remarkably unimpressive rivalry game blowout.

Tennessee actually out-gained Florida, 258 yards to 243, and 243 yards is a pretty pathetic showing. Tim Tebow was only eight of 15 for 96 yards, and once again UF's receivers couldn't contribute to the passing game. Percy Harvin, who still looks a step slower than he did last year, caught two passes for 49 yards. That led the Gators. Louis Murphy also caught two passes, as did Aaron Hernandez. Add in single receptions by Riley Cooper and Kestahn Moore, neither of them all that impressive, and you have the extent of Florida's passing game.

So when I question Dan Mullen's playcalling, I have to ask whether his unwillingness to pass the ball leads to those numbers or if he won't pass because he has no confidence in his receiving corps. Twice Florida tried to convert third and long with tricky shovel passes; one of those plays worked, the Volunteers sniffed out the other one. There are a lot of ways to run an offense, but if you can't drop back on third and seven and throw an eight yard pass, it's hard to imagine you've got the makings of a dynamic offense. Florida seems overly reliant on the zone read play; they showed little variety Saturday afternoon and pretty much stuck to the ground game on first down.

Defensively, the numbers are impressive, but the Gators still surrendered a couple long drives in the first half. They got lucky on those drives when the Volunteers displayed an impressive inability to get out of their way. No, literally. Tennessee put together a long drive and was poised to punch the ball in for a crucial touchdown when quarterback Jonathan Crompton bumped into his fullback on a handoff and fumbled the ball. It was pretty much emblematic of the entire day.

But a 24-point win over Tennessee isn't cause for nitpicking, and there was obviously a lot to like here. There's a tendency to treat special teams scores as somewhat fluky and unreliable, but they really aren't. Urban Meyer puts an extreme emphasis on his return and coverage teams, and it shows. And, of course, it always helps to have Brandon James. Florida's Devil Dwarf scored on a punt return in the first quarter and broke a long return on the opening kickoff of the game. The Vols seemed to throw up their hands after the kickoff return.

I was particularly excited to see Jonathan Phillips kick three field goals, including one from 40 yards. If Phillips can show Meyer that he's capable of making field goals from more than 35 yards, it'll take a lot of pressure off the offense and reduce the number of times Florida has to go for it on fourth down.

The biggest development came when Meyer finally unveiled much-hyped Emmanuel Moody, the transfer from USC. Moody only gained 61 yards on nine carries, which is a nifty little average of 6.1 yards per carry. Tebow still carried the ball 12 times and only gained 26 yards. But if Meyer gains confidence in Moody and starts to lean on him as an every down back, Florida's offense might hit another gear. Or it might not, especially if the receivers don't start getting open.

While I was annoyed with Florida's inability to touch Crompton (Carlos Dunlap, Jermaine Cunnigham and Lawrence Marsh haven't been seen much outside of the Hawaii game), the defense has played well for a third straight game. None of the teams had the talent to challenge UF's secondary, so we still don't know how the corners and safeties will handle Matthew Stafford and Company, but since the Gators had trouble playing three straight successful downs in 2007, 2008 has been a pleasant little surprise. Tennessee committed three turnovers. As noted above, one was entirely unforced. But true freshmen Janoris Jenkins made a great play to force a fumble in the first quarter and intercepted another pass in the end zone. The Gators had trouble forcing turnovers in 2007, so those were good to see.

Up next is Ole Miss. There's been so much talk of the Rebels as a sleeper that it's hard to imagine Florida will take them lightly. And Meyer has to have some insight into Jevan Snead's talent, considering his unique history with the Mississippi QB.

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