Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Championship Preview, Part 2: When Florida Has The Ball

Bob Stoops wants you to know that you can't judge Oklahoma's defense by its fairly unimpressive statistics. Stoops is so desperate for you to know this that he won't even wait for reporters to ask him about his defense. He's done public service announcements. He's bought a small plane and flown it around Miami, trailing a large banner that says "OU's Defense Can't Be Judged By Stats!" He called up the general assignment reporter at Miami's Spanish language newspaper aimed at gay Cuban emigres.

Stoops' argument is pretty simple: Yes, the Sooners rank 62nd in the country in total defense and 98th in passing defense. But those numbers simply reflect the philosophy of Oklahoma's defense. They'll give up big plays, but they'll also make big plays. The Sooners, after all, have forced 32 turnovers, tied for ninth in the country. And they've recorded 42 sacks, good for 3rd in the nation. The Sooners, Stoops argues, play ferociously and make up for their mistakes by forcing the opposition into its own.

Stoops is a smart guy and a fine coach, so he's not just blowing smoke. But if Oklahoma's defensive strength lies in forcing the opposing offense into making mistakes, then they're facing a bit of a quandry when gameplanning for Florida's attack. Simply put, the Gators don't make mistakes.

Florida's lost 11 turnovers all season, the third-best figure in the nation. (Oklahoma, it must be said, ranks first with nine) The Gators have thrown three interceptions all season, best in the nation, and one of those came from the arm of back-up John Brantley in the waning moments of UF's victory over Vanderbilt. Tim Tebow has thrown just two picks all season and nine in his entire career. For all the talk from Todd McShay and the other draft "gurus" about Tebow's godawful decision-making and complete inability to read defenses, Tebow has shown an almost preternatural ability to avoid turnovers as Florida's QB.

And the Sooners aren't going to have an easy time bulling through UF's offensive line. Florida has allowed 16 sacks all season, good for 16th-best in the nation.

In short, for all the razzle dazzle in Florida's offense, for all the speed and elusiveness, UF's offense is as good as it is in large part because it's so discplined and fundamentally sound. That, by the way, is Urban Meyer's Don Quixote issue: he wants everyone to know that Florida's is not a finesse offense.

For all the receivers and spread formations the Gators use, this Florida team is all about the running game. The Gators are 11th in the country (229 yards per game) when it comes to running the football. And they don't get those statistics through a "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach. Florida averages 5.96 yards per carry. And the Gators do it with a balanced approach:

Percy Harvin: 61 carries, 538 yards, 8.8 YPC
Jeffery Demps: 69 carries, 582 yards, 8.4 YPC
Chris Rainey: 83 carries, 655 yards, 7.9 YPC
Emmanuel Moody: 57 carries, 417 yards, 7.3 YPC
Tim Tebow: 154 carries, 564 yards, 3.7 YPC

The Sooners defend the run pretty well, 16th-best in the nation. As noted above, the Sooners have struggled immensely with the pass. The question is whether Florida can take advantage of OU's weakness in that area of the game.

The Gators are a long way from those Spurrier offenses of the mid-90's. Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen don't like to sling the ball around; UF ranks 62nd in the country in passing yards per game. (212.6, for the record) But the Gators average 9.24 yards per attempt, which is awfully good. Only two of the teams in the top 10 in passing beat that number. Florida just likes to run the ball, and when you have the collection of rushing talent listed above, it's not hard to understand why.

No matter how you look at this match-up, it's hard to say the Gators don't have the advantage. If Harvin's ankle cripples him Thursday night, it'll have an impact on UF's offense. The attack was noticeably less dynamic in the Alabama game with him sitting on the bench; his acceleration is unparalleled, he's as fast as anyone in the country and he can run powerfully between the tackles.

I'm assuming he'll play, and I'm assuming he'll do so on a relatively strong ankle. If that's true, I can't imagine Oklahoma stopping the Gators at all.

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