Special opportunities

Brandon James scores a touchdown off a 72-yard punt return during the second quarter against Hawaii on Aug. 30 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 at 12:29 a.m.

In Urban Meyer's plan to win, the kicking game is No. 4 on the list. Maybe it moves up to No. 1 this week.

Because in the previous two Florida-LSU games, the winner in special teams has won the game.

Last season in Baton Rouge, the Tigers scored a touchdown on a fake field goal in their come-from-behind 28-24 victory.

Two years ago in The Swamp, the Gators conducted a special-teams clinic that was the difference in UF's 23-10 win on the way to winning the national championship.

"That special teams performance (in the 2006 game) is probably the best I've been around," Meyer said.

The special teams moment in that game everyone remembers is the safety on the second-half kickoff, when Riley Cooper nailed returner Early Doucet inside the 5-yard line and Doucet fumbled the ball into the end zone, where it was recovered by LSU teammate Trindon Holliday.

There was much more. The Gators recovered a muffed punt that led to their first touchdown and blocked a punt in the third quarter.

In the first half, Eric Wilbur, under a heavy rush, got off a one-step punt that soared 52 yards. On the next play, UF intercepted a pass that led to the Gators' second touchdown.

In the fourth quarter, holding a 23-10 lead, cornerback Wondy Pierre-Louis tackled punt returner Chevis Jackson on the LSU 6-yard line.

It all added up to a big special teams performance and a big Florida victory.

Given the recent history in this game, special teams again move to the forefront.

"Playing great special teams and winning the kicking game is part of the plan to win," UF punter Chas Henry said. "If you can do that, it really gives you a better chance to win.

"This is an exciting week to show what we can do in special teams. The competition we're playing against this week is top notch, if not the best in the country."

Just like at Florida, specials teams are priority at LSU. The Gators like to think they have the best special teams in the SEC, maybe the nation, but the Tigers would have to rank right up there with them.

Perhaps the biggest similarity is in the return game. The Gators have a dynamic returner in Brandon James. The Tigers have one in Holliday, who has three returns for touchdowns in his career, including a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown against North Texas earlier this season.

"He's going to be a major challenge for us," said defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who works with the UF punt coverage team. "Our guys have to get down the field and tackle."

Holliday is a track star and one of the fastest players in college football. He's averaging 25.1 yards a punt return and 24.0 yards a kickoff return. James' numbers are 20.4 and 30.9.

"These are two good offensive and defensive teams," James said. "You need plays in special teams to kind of determine the game. Every time we're out there, we try to make plays on special teams. Whatever we can do to get our edge, that's what we'll try to do."

The Gators are capable of doing it in the return game and in other phases of special teams.

Under Meyer, Florida has blocked 12 punts, five of them coming on the opening drive of the game. The Gators are 10-0 when they block a punt and 15-1 when they block a kick of any type. Additionally, James has returned four kicks for touchdowns and the Gators are seven-for-seven on fake punt attempts.

"Coach Meyer always puts a big emphasis on special teams, especially for games that are going to be close, SEC games," senior long snapper James Smith said. "We just come out and try to do our part to help the team.

"Coach Meyer is really focused on a week like this. It's definitely (a pride thing). LSU takes special teams seriously as well."

Two years ago, Florida won the special teams battle and won the game. LSU did the same a year ago.

Maybe that's the way it will play out again in The Swamp on Saturday night.

"It's another big rivalry and you can't help but get up for it and try to prepare the best you can," James said. "We'll try to make some game-changing plays."

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreu@gvillesun.com.

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