Defense can leave legacy
Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 11:12 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS — It was back at the first news conference in August when Will Muschamp said something I had been thinking all summer.
As good as Florida's defense had been in 2011, a lot of the statistics were inflated because of Florida's offense. Teams didn't take chances on offense because they knew Florida was struggling to score points.
For Florida to take the giant step it took this year, the Gators would have to get better on offense, but the defense would also need some major improvement.
Tonight in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, this defense will play as one for the final time. Some players are seniors, some will leave early for the NFL Draft. This is the defense's last chance to show that it may just be the best defense in America.
And one of the best ever at Florida.
“You look at them and you think Jon Bostic and you think Brandon Spikes,” said Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who was Florida's defensive coordinator for the 2006 and '08 national titles. “You think Matt Elam and you think Major Wright. “They're a really good defense.”
So how did Florida build a better defense?
1. They got deeper.
One of the problems last year was that attrition and injuries hurt Florida's depth and players — especially on the defensive line — were worn out.
“(Antonio) Morrison, (Jonathan) Bullard and (Dante) Fowler have been as good as any freshmen I've been around,” Muschamp said Tuesday.
2. They got stronger.
When Muschamp made his comment after the 2011 FSU game that his team was “soft” it was directed at the offensive line.
But the defensive players heard it, too.
“You gotta take that personally,” said tackle Sharrif Floyd. “We're all in this together. He wouldn't lie to us. If he said we're soft, we were soft. He's going to let us know in his own way. It might not be a good way, but he's going to tell us.
“We did what we had to do.”
Certainly, Jeff Dillman was a huge hire as strength and conditioning coach, but some of the improvement is simply because players had another year in the program.
“We got older,” Muschamp said. “But the weight room has been a good change for us.”
3. They got smarter.
To have a second year under the same defensive coordinator — Dan Quinn — was a big factor.
“There were times we watched film last year and couldn't even look at it,” said linebacker Jon Bostic.
Florida was a young defense last year with the fewest snaps among the starters than any team in the SEC.
“We had guys play extremely well,” Muschamp said.
4. They got the Gator Bowl.
Winning the game over Ohio State was important last year because the last thing Muschamp wanted was a losing record in his first year. But the more important thing was what Florida did with the preparation.
It was almost like the start of a new season, a season where they would no longer have their toughness questioned.
“You can't talk about it,” Muschamp said. “You have to practice that way. In training camp (in 2011), we weren't as physical as we wanted to be because we were worried about getting guys hurt.
“When we went to the bowl game I said, ‘To heck with it.' We had more contact. And I saw us making strides.”
5. They got takeaways.
Last year was almost an embarrassment, especially because Muschamp said turnover margin would be one of his focuses in the preseason of 2011.
Florida finished 113th in the nation in that category with minus-11. This year, they are tied for fifth at plus-17.
Think about that. The differential of 28 is a huge reason why a 7-6 team became an 11-1 team.
“The No. 1 thing is takeways,” Muschamp said.
6. They got an offense.
It wasn't like Florida was lighting up the scoreboard this season, but the Gators' improvement in their ability to run the ball even when the other team knew it was coming has helped the defense.
“We didn't play as many snaps on defense as we did a year ago,” Muschamp said.
Florida's defenders were on the field for five fewer snaps per game than they were last season. That may not seem like a lot, but it is.
You add all of these factors together and you get a top-10 defense, one that has carried this team to New Orleans.
Tonight, they face a quarterback who Elam said is the best they have faced all season.
One more game.
One more chance.