Florida senior safety Nick Washington said the theme for the Gator defense this week has been to finish.
Finish plays. Finish tackles. Finish off games.
“We’re trying to set the mentality,” Washington said. “One of the first away games we had last year was against Tennessee. We came out strong and we didn’t finish.”
Finishing strong has been an issue for UF’s defense through the first two games of the season. Lack of depth and time of possession have both played a role, but it’s something the Gators are looking to fix heading into their first true road game Saturday at Kentucky.
UF’s defense failed to a hold a 20-10 lead with 5:13 remaining in its eventual 26-20 win over Tennessee last Saturday. Against Michigan, the Gators were unable to hold a 17-13 halftime lead in a 33-17 loss.
Florida’s defense has allowed 30 points in the second half, compared to 16 in the first half (seven points in the second half against Michigan came on a fumble in the end zone by Florida quarterback Malik Zaire). The Gator defense has given up an average of 269 yards per game in the second half, compared to 168.5 yards in the first half.
Florida defensive players refused to use fatigue as an excuse for the second-half breakdowns.
“You’re gonna get tired,” Florida sophomore defensive lineman Luke Ancrum said. “It’s about your mind. If your mind gets tired then it’s dead. As long as your mindset is good then you can push through it.”
But Florida coach Jim McElwain admitted time of possession has played a role in UF’s defense wearing down late. In the loss to Michigan, the Wolverines enjoyed a 16:12-13:48 time of possession advantage in the second half. In the Tennessee win, the time of possession gap in the second half was even more pronounced — 20:30 for the Vols compared to 9:30 for the Gators.
“You’ve got to start to win a little bit of time of possession and get them off the field,” McElwain said.
UF lost seven defensive starters from last season, with all seven being taken in the NFL draft. Attempting to rebuild from that talent loss, under new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, hasn’t been easy. The Gators are thin in depth at both linebacker and in the secondary. That depth was tested in the second half against Tennessee, with cornerback Duke Dawson (head), linebacker Vosean Joseph (not announced) and linebacker Kylan Johnson (hamstring) all sidelined at points with injuries. McElwain praised the efforts of senior linebacker Cristian Garcia and sophomore linebacker Rayshad Jackson, who stepped in for Joseph and Johnson.
“We’re rolling guys through pretty good,” McElwain said. “Obviously the linebackers have taken some hits, but we knew that going in. We knew we were going to be in that situation and need some guys to step up.”
Who: No. 20 Florida (1-1, 1-0 SEC) vs. Kentucky (3-0, 1-0)
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
In the secondary, missed tackles resulted in Tennessee’s quick, two-play, 30-second touchdown drive that cut UF’s lead to 20-17 in the fourth quarter. Freshman cornerback Marco Wilson stepped up with seven tackles, but sophomore safety Chauncey Gardner only had four tackles and missed on some other tackle attempts.
Washington said tackling has been an emphasis in practice this week.
“We had great pursuit to the ball,” Washington said. “We had a lot of guys make plays after broken tackles. It was more you coming up on a guy, grab him up, wrap up and make sure you get him to the ground.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway’s blog at Gatorsports.com.