Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mississippi 31, Florida 30

Next time John McCain mentions the relatively low number of nuclear meltdowns in the US, point him to this game.

I think I'll avoid for a couple weeks. That was simply a complete breakdown in every aspect of the game. Florida put up the least impressive 443 yards of offense I've ever seen. The defense, frequently put in untenable situations, eventually snapped in a way reminiscent of the 2007 season. And even UF's heretofore untouchable special teams cracked at crucial moments.

But the game was really lost at the beginning of the second half. Ole Miss punched Florida in the mouth at the beginning of the game, and the Gators responded well. The defense stiffened, the offense gelled a bit and Florida scored 17 unanswered points. UF entered the half up 17-7, thanks in no small part to the idiocy of Mississippi's offense in the closing moments.

Then comes the second half kick-off, a Harvin rush for eight yards and the comfortable victory appeared on the horizon. That's when the officials started slathering butter on the ball and Florida started falling apart.

Harvin fumbled and the Rebels took over on Florida's 34-yard-line. The defense held Mississippi to a field goal. Next possession, Tebow botched a zone read handoff to Brandon James and the Rebels recovered a fumble on UF's 18-yard-line. This time Ole Miss punched it in, tying the score at 17-17.

After a couple inconclusive drives, Ole Miss used their "Wild Rebel" formation (and God, how I grew tired of hearing that phrase) to break Dexter McCluster for a 40-yard touchdown run. Florida missed a number of tackles, allowing McCluster to break free.

Down 24-17, the Gators managed to string together a drive that would be punctuated by Tebow's second touchdown run of the game and the season. So, 24-24, pull yourself together and get the win.

Nope. Two drives later former Florida commit Jevan Snead hit Shay Hodge for 86 yards, the kind of play that tormented the Gators last year. Major Wright botched his coverage assignment and Hodge practically jogged 50 yards for the score.

To UF's credit, they didn't back down. On their very next drive the Gators were able to march down the field and score, thanks to a rejuvenated Percy Harvin. 31-30, kick the extra point, stop Ole Miss, score on your last drive and go home with a win.

Nope. After years of blocking kicks and playing great on special teams, the Gators' line buckled. Ole Miss blocked the extra point, leaving it a 31-30 game.

Again, UF's defense rose to the occasion and stymied Mississippi's attempt to run out the clock. Florida got the ball back with 2:05 left and Tebow had his Heisman moment in front of him.

Things were going so well. Taking over at their own 22-yard-line, Florida streaked into Ole Miss territory with three plays. On first and 10 from the Rebel 41, Tebow's line picked up a blitz and the Heisman winner picked out Louis Murphy streaking wide open down the middle.

And the Heisman winner missed his receiver by a step. That seemed to break Florida's back. Tebow missed Harvin on second down. On third down, Brandon James took an option pitch and scampered nine yards, leaving the Gators with a difficult situation: fourth and one on Mississippi's 32. Meyer didn't trust his kicker to boot a 49-yard field goal, and probably with good reason. So you turn to Tim Tebow, Heisman winner, Superman, The Circumciser. Surely he could gain one yard and move the chains.

Nope. Florida's offensive line had no push. Tebow never got close to the first down marker.

Something has to change. The special teams will play well. It's what they do. The defense had its struggles, giving up 325 yards, but they were left in impossible situations. Generally Florida's defenders acquitted themselves well.

No, the problems remain largely on the offensive side of the ball. Yes, they picked up 443 yards and 319 through the air. But once again the offensive line allowed entirely too much pressure (three sacks) and once again Tebow didn't handle that pressure well. Today you couldn't even blame exotic blitz packages like the ones Miami schemed. Ole Miss simply beat a much-hyped offensive line with its front four.

And the Gators still do not have a diversified offense. Harvin ran the ball 10 times. Emmanuel Moody carried it only three times (all in the first half) for 16 yards. Chris Rainey had three carries. Brandon James, Kestahn Moore and Jeff Demps all carried once.

Meyer needs to pick a running back and stick with him. That guy is probably Moody, but for the love of God, choose someone.

Once again the receiving corps outside of Harvin played no role in the game. Aaron Hernandez continued his good work, hauling in four passes. Louis Murphy also got four balls. Riley Cooper had two catches. Carl Moore and Deonte Thompson were shut out once again.

Before today's, Florida's offense had been unimpressive but at least avoided hurting the team. The Gators didn't turn the ball over, didn't make a lot of mistakes and was generally a complete non-entity. Today, however, Florida moved the ball but also committed three turnovers and hurt its defense on several occasions.

If there's good news from this debacle, it's the resurrection of a healthy, dynamic Percy Harvin. He caught 13 passes for 186 yards and ran free over the middle most of the game. He gained 82 yards on 10 carries, a much better rushing average than he had posted in his first two games and closer to the figures he had put up in 2006 and 2007. That should, in theory, open up the field for other playmakers, assuming they exist.

Florida's road to a SEC Championship remains perfectly clear. Win out and they're in Atlanta. It would be nice if Alabama could travel to Athens and beat Georgia tonight, but the Gators still control their own destiny. But right now, it's hard to imagine them beating LSU, Georgia or even Vanderbilt.

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