The Back Nine: Thoughts on Gators’ missing defense

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South Carolina running back Rico Dowdle runs past Florida defensive lineman Cece Jefferson (96) in Saturday's game in The Swamp. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The Back Nine comes at you after another great weekend of sleeping in my own bed and watching so much football because I know the end of the season is coming soon. By the way, Happy Birthday to Robbie Andreu, who turns 39 again today.

10. I know I should start with something positive because Florida won Saturday and no matter what you want to say about this year’s team no UF team has ever rallied from 18 and 17 points behind to win in the same season. But I open on a somewhat negative note because I’m sure all of you are wondering the same thing — what has happened to the Florida defense? More specifically, what has happened to the Florida defense in the first half recently? This is a stat I’m sure most of you suspected if you have watched the Gators play this season. In the first half of the season (five games), the Gators gave up only 19 points in the first half. In the second five games of the season, Florida has allowed 96 points in the first half. In three of the last four games, the Gators have given up 21 points in the first half and fallen way behind. Amazingly, Florida won two of those games. So what has happened?

• Dan Mullen said Monday he thinks his team has struggled to go from the upgrade in the speed of the games from the speed of practices. But that should be the case for every team in every game, right?

• The opponents have been better. Two of the first five games were against Charleston Southern and Colorado State. Not to mention Tennessee (110th in the nation in scoring), Kentucky (109th) and Mississippi State (89th).

• With a lot of video to see what Todd Grantham is doing with these players, teams have been able to scheme up an attack better. Florida has somewhat adjusted, allowing 10 or fewer points in three of the five games.

• The Gators are getting worn down. A lack of depth has been a problem in the back seven. And teams have come at the Gators with up-tempo offenses to keep UF from subbing a lot.

Perhaps the defensive issues are why the students don’t show up at the start of the game. I kid, of course.

11. Well, at least one Petrino is coaching college football and Paul Petrino will be in Gainesville on Saturday as the head coach at Idaho (actually, two Petrinos will be here as his son, Mason, is the starting quarterback). The elder Petrino has his Vandals with a 4-6 record, which was way better than his bro, Bobby, was doing at Louisville. Idaho was in Gainesville in 2014 for one of the most bizarre nights of my career. We waited out a three-hour lightning delay only to have the opening kickoff returned 64 yards by Valdez Showers and then another lightning delay before the game was finally canceled. This is not a true make-up game because Idaho was paid then and it will be paid for this trip. But Florida only has to cough up a little more than $900K because Idaho had to drop down to FCS prior to this season. The Vandals gave up 79 points earlier this season to Fresno State. They lost to Montana last week 46-27. So, yes, despite all of your objections, I probably will pick Florida this week. One issue — this is the last game of the year for the Vandals so they will hold nothing back.

12. The bowl situation still remains fluid because so much depends on whether or not the Gators win out and sneak into the Top 12 of the final College Football Playoff. Some of the projections are not based on reality because you have to understand that the commissioner is making a lot of these decisions on where to slot teams not in the playoffs or New Year’s Six bowl games. Keep an eye on the rankings tonight to see if the Gators are ahead of Kentucky because if that holds up and Florida beats FSU next week, we could see that Florida-UCF game in the Peach Bowl that a lot of people want and a lot of other people dread. But anybody who thinks a win over FSU is an automatic because the Seminoles are dreadful this year season needs to be reminded that the last time Florida beat the Semis was 2012.

13. Oh, did I mention that Bobby Petrino was fired Sunday? All of the media boys and girls who thought it was a terrible idea to bring him back to Louisville are wearing “told ya so” smiles today. When you are a terrible person, losing is not going to be tolerated. Apparently, he had lost the locker room and there were going to be mass transfers. This quote from Louisville AD Vince Tyra tells you everything you need to know — “If you want to say culture equals effort, something screwy was going on.” Obviously, once Tom Jurich was let go as AD at Louisville during the Rick Pitino purge, Petrino had lost the protection that allowed him to have his son and two son-in-laws on staff. One question — can we go back and give Lamar Jackson the 2016 Heisman Trophy because he had the Cardinals up to fifth in the CFP and it has been a disaster since he left? Asking for a friend.

14. Is it just me or has the Heisman race suddenly become interesting? I always caution people not to get carried away early and then I did, declaring Tua Tagovailoa the lock a couple of weeks ago. But as the opposition has gotten better and he has struggled with his bad knee, it doesn’t look like a no-brainer anymore. I believe Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray has a shot and West Virginia’s Will Grier is a darkhorse. If those two have a shootout next Friday with the post-Thanksgiving crowd watching and Tua doesn’t do anything extraordinary the rest of the way it could get tight. And don’t forget that it’s possible West Virginia and Oklahoma could play again the following week in the Big 12 Championship Game. Of course, if Alabama rolls into the College Football Playoff 13-0 and Tagovailoa plays well against Georgia in Atlanta, he’s going to be difficult to beat.

15. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was upset after his team’s latest basketball game because there were so many stoppages of plays for officials to look at the monitors. There is no question games are being delayed too much because of reviews in football and basketball, but there are fans clamoring for more reviews in baseball and softball. It’s a fine line between getting the calls right and dragging games out, especially when there are attendance issues. It’s one thing to be watching the game on TV and using the review breaks as bathroom breaks or a chance to reload. But when you are sitting out there on a metal bleacher or thinking about beating the basketball traffic home, it can be irritating. I’m not sure what the answer is and I darn sure don’t know what targeting is anymore.

16. We all know the NFL is fickle, but the truth is eight of the 12 playoff teams are still in position to be in the playoffs this year with winning records. The other four, not so much. The biggest disappointments from last year’s playoffs in order:

• Jacksonville (3-6) — remember when the Jags beat the Patriots and looked like they were going to roll into the Super Bowl? Not so fast.

• Buffalo (3-7) — it’s been a genuinely weird season for the Bills that started with the mistake of trading Tyrod Taylor.

• Philadelphia (4-5) — the Eagles are in trouble after their Sunday night loss.

• Atlanta (4-5) — injuries have ravaged Dan Quinn’s team.

17. The Tweet of the Week — and it was a wild one for current and former Gator quarterbacks — comes from someone who played the position at UF, Austin Appleby — “The SEC is built to bring a QB to his knees. It’s tough & isn’t for everyone. It takes a special guy to lead a program like UF. Good comes with more bad. But, is the most rewarding and fulfilling job in the world if you are able to handle all that comes with playing the position.” What he said.

18. It means a lot to me that so many people enjoy The Back Nine. Even my urologist walked into my latest appointment and said, “The Back Nine.” At least I think he was talking about my column. Anyway, I get a lot of suggestions for my playlists and mostly befuddlement at the songs I choose. But we plow ahead with the latest:

• “99” by Barns Courtney.

• “No Going Back” by Yuno.

• “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” by Against Me! from right here in Gainesville.

• “Good On You Son” by Mark Knopfler.

• And for an old one from the Hall of Famers “Do Ya” by Electric Light Orchestra.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

30 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Pat, the missing D has been my most asked question on these blogs. Mullen’s statement are just coaching bah haa. Again, you mentioned UT/MS/LSU, yes they’re proving not to be the best offenses in the world, but they are made up of SEC size and speedy men. That off again-on again performance, is usually about coaching. Last Saturday proved it was a “switch of the brain” issue. They dominated the same O that they seemingly couldn’t stop for three quarters.

    Amen on the long official replays. From my vantage point, I don’t believe there are too many, but that they are too long. We’ve all seen that approximately 75% of the reviews are obvious calls with just one or two rewinds necessary for verification (iE. the foot either touched or didn’t tough the white line. Fumbles can be longer decisions).

    Here’s a classic I hadn’t ever heard until the other day on “Willie’s Roadhouse XM”: Marty Robbie’s “Knee Deep in the Blues” (1957). Watch the video, classic early rock O billy guitar playing. Off course, unlike today’s “non Country Music”, Marty could sing any song and carry a tune, up down and all around.

  2. I think you nailed the defensive lapse on the head with your last three notes, Pat. A thin secondary, frankly a shortage of developed depth st linebacker, having to go against up-tempo offenses early in games without much opportunity to substitute, and opposing offenses figuring out Grantham’s blitz packages. But why later in games is Florida able to turn it around so effectively? It’s a Jekyl-and-Hyde defense. And then you have an opponent, South Carolina, abandoning its up-tempo pace to try to run the clock, a familiar Will Muschamp offensive miscalculation.
    Anyway, this has been an emotional roller coaster of a Gator season, lots of fun amid the three losses against opponents we had reason to believe Florida could defeat. For one drive into the second half the Gators actually looked a bit better than Georgia, you know? This year is a very promising start for Dan Mullen getting the most from a roster someone else mostly assembled. No complaints here.

  3. As for the Gator ‘D’, Coach Grantham needs to coach ’em up better, early, and often. That is, if they’re ever going to dominate like Florida’s D once did, or like recent ‘Bama D’s. And Tua T. and Timmy T. have a some common threads. I don’t need to say anymore. However, Tua should ”thank Tim” after he wins the Heisman for opening the ”Sophomore Heisman winning door.” And Florida’s year will be what most expected -if they lose to F.S.U. and go 8-4. Making Pat & Robbie look like their preseason picks for Florida (at 8-4) was somehow spectacular. While 9-3, and spanking the naughty ‘Noles in Tally would be a great year for Mullen’s 1st year, and it would send a huge message to the ‘Noles ”There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Reggie Hammond!” (I mean Coach Dan Mullen!) Go Gators!

  4. The defense has been up and down. Perhaps some kudos due to coaching staff for in-game adjustments that have allowed the boys to get stops late. But that still begs the question of prep/game-plan/practice during game week.

    Boy, if the Gators can’t get off the schneid this year against the Nolies, then when? FSU is a straight mess – incredibly disorganized. They were making fundamental mistakes last week against ND that you would (almost) excuse if it were the first game of the season (or the Spring scrimmage). I said it before the season – the Noles are going to regret not finding a way to make nice with Jimbo.

  5. The lapse on defense has much to do with the injuries in the secondary. Grantham LOVES to blitz! It is a pure numbers game. If you rush 4 and blitz 2, you are even and even outnumbered in the secondary with a running QB. The Gators like to blitz up front and play combination coverage. The hope is that the secondary can rotate and mix up the coverage long enough for the pressure to get the QB. As more and more DBs go down and LBs get tired, those combination coverages are lacking. Therefore when we blitz 6, there is a TE running wide open down the field because the safety fails to pick him up or the LB doesn’t rotate over. Teams are running the double post and the safety is having to choose which to cover. The LB is blitzing, the safety drops back and the intermediate post is wide open. Spurrier ran these routes all the time. (See UF vs UT, 1996, 4th & 11 to Anthony where Wuerffel threw the deep post when the safety jumped the shallow post). So, ultimately, it comes down to the players on the field.

    However, Grantham is not off the hook. If his secondary is getting killed, he needs to keep some people back in coverage and simplify the game for his DBs. Sometimes telling a guy to cover your man is more effective then worrying about rotations because it takes the thought and reaction time out of the equation. You actually saw this when he only rushed 4 on a key 3rd down play and dropped back into coverage.

    Overall, this defense is flawed but still very very good when healthy and fresh. If they are injured and tired, not so much. Luckily the next 2 games play in their favor since they can probably pressure with 4 or 5 guys. The key will be in Grantham gets impatient and puts the secondary at a disadvantage or, like Mullen, can cover up his unit’s weaknesses.

    • Spot on analysis! The blitz packages are stressing the relatively inexperienced secondary. The linebackers are having a tough go at coverage. Florida could get away with more safety blitzing when Marco was playing. You need 2 lockdown corners to run the blitz packages he wants to run. Frankly, they haven’t been working in getting quick pressure on the QB. Florida should be vanilla this week against Idaho. FSU is another story. Florida should be able to get pressure on their QB with the 40 package. Their O-line has been a mess. The secondary needs all the help they can get against their talented wideouts. However, a leopard doesn’t lose it spots, and Grantham is Grantham.

    • Orlando: I was at the 1996 Knoxville game, I believe it was 4 and 15…if you read Danny’s book, he said the OHBC called time out to figure out what to do and finally, in his frustration of having no obvious play to call, said to Danny “lets just see if they’re (UT) in the right coverage”…Reidell split the safetys for the perfect DW lob to the center of the checker board!!! Turning on another mid 1990s Gator flood of TDs.

      • I was there too. I don’t think anybody can agree on the down and distance. On TV, it was 4th and 10.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OTY1tMmoKU

        In the newspaper it was 4th and 11!
        His first one may have done the most damage. It came on 35-yard strike to Reidel Anthony down the middle on fourth and 11. Asked if that was Spurrier’s call or an audible, Wuerffel laughed and said, “I wasn’t going to call a post on fourth and 11.”

        Honestly, it doesn’t matter the distance. It was just amazing. Go Gators!

  6. Florida can easily ground and pound their way to a 9 win season. Idaho and FSU can be whipped physically by this Florida offense, and the defense will feed off of that and consume FSU. If we end up with UCF in the bowl game, hopefully, we can out physical them and ground and pound to a victory. Game plan from here on out offensively should be: Franks, 10 carries per game; Toney, 15 touches per game; Scarlett, 20 carries per game; Perine, 15 carries per game; Pierce, 10 carries per game. That will effectively take the passing game (except for screen passes to Toney) out of the equation and give Florida’s offense the best chance to be successful and score. If the Gators just ground and pound and keep the ball for 5-7 minutes at a time, the defense gets rest and can feed on the other team’s offense who is not in a rhythm. Too many times this defense has been hung out to dry by the offense. I’ve said this is a program issue where one side of the ball is not putting out because the other side is not. That shouldn’t happen, but it does. If the offense will live up to their end of the game, the defense will live up to theirs.

    • Amen! I would love to see Florida pound the rock against a UCF and just bully them down the field. Just shut them up! However, I’m not so sure if the defense is up to the task of stopping a good passing team. I would go along with your theory on the cause of their letdown being they are tired from being on the field if they didn’t give up so many points in the first half. But the defense does seem to feed off the energy of the offense when the offense starts clicking in the second half. Regardless, I’m starting to wear down from all of these heart attack comeback games. I sure do miss the old days when Florida just stomped on their opponents from the get go.

    • Lol!! Yeah, that’s a winning formula! You’ve already given out 70 carries per game by your “game plan”. We may not even get 70 snaps in our remaining games! So I guess we just need to go all 1980s Oklahoma and run the wishbone too? Lol

  7. I was worried about our secondary from game 1, well probably more like game 2. Our pass rush at the time was camouflaging our weaknesses. We weren’t covering people. and although the secondary made a big play at the end of the LSU game, it was clear to me their secondary covered better. That is the truth with most teams though, namely, pass rush makes the secondary look a lot better. Look a the Jags. We need to get everyone healthy and aggressive. Getting Joseph to actually run somewhere other than into a defensive tackle’s behind would be fresh. The guy runs himself out of more plays than anyone on the team. He was great against LSU bc he was patient. As for the Heisman race, Tua is the man. He plays in the SEC against teams that actually give real scholarships to men to play defense . Murray is a great QB who would be “good” in the SEC. Those teams out west don’t even know how to spell “defense”. When the selection committee chooses a team in the Final 4 over Oklahoma, it will be because of defense, which Oklahoma hasn’t had since Stoops’ third season. I saw defensive players on each team in the Oklahoma–Okla St. game jog around and tackle air the entire game. It looked like they were programmed to miss tackles. No cred with me if I were a voter. No Heisman. No Final 4.

  8. The Gator D is especially vulnerable to teams with good tight ends and a qb with a quick release. The dbs have to play better in man coverage on deep passes too. That’s stating the obvious. Sometimes Grantham waits too long to make needed adjustments or he just has limited options because of depth issues. I like his agressive style of play, but he needs more pieces of the puzzle to get it working better. The best part of this defense is they don’t quit.

  9. My kind of article. Good work. We have a lot to work on. And some of that defense is going to be moving on soon.
    The 10 players we lost in 2017 from health and credit card issues would be this year’s depth and next year’s starters or close to it. Add that few coaches get the recruits they want in the first year so that’s 2 years in the rotation not so good. I like the coaches but they need more time.

  10. I love my Gators. Absolutely.
    That said, how many people here are going to blow their Saturday watching a noon game vs Idaho? I know all of the 1As are doing it (bama vs citiadel, UK vs middle tenn, UGly vs UMass, Auburn vs Liberty, eATMe vs UAB, LSWho vs Rice, USC vs Chattanooga), but scheduling these type of teams for the 12th game make for some non compelling viewing.
    I’ll record the game, but with other serious games on in the evening, don’t know if I’ll watch it. Why I quit my season tickets.

  11. But you know what , the best thing is we have made a lot of mistakes; have a lot to learn; have players who can only get better and we are still on the verge of being 9-3 and ranked in the top 12 when it is all said and done. The future, including next year, looks bright for the Gators.