Goals remain in place for Gators


Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.

Contrary to popular (and negative) belief, Florida's season did not end in Miami. The loss to the Hurricanes, as disheartening and frustrating as it may have been, does not change anything, really.

Facts

GATOR GAME

* What: Tennessee (2-1) at Florida (1-1).

* When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

* Where: Ben Hil Griffin Stadium, aka The Swamp.

* TV/Radio: CBS, WRUF.

* Information: Visit www.gatorsports.com.

This is a Florida team that's probably not quite ready to embrace national championship aspirations. But its goal of winning the SEC East and advancing to Atlanta is still very much attainable.

In fact, the Gators' prospects may look even more promising than they did two weeks ago. After watching the other contenders in the East (Georgia and South Carolina) the past two weeks, it's very evident that UF can compete with those schools. UF appears to be much stronger on defense than UGA and USC, and defense still wins championships in the SEC.

Given that, the reality is the Gators' season didn't end two weeks ago. It begins this week with the opening of SEC play against Tennessee.

Here are five things the Gators can take away from the Miami game that might help them make a serious run at Atlanta:

* 1. Take care of your quarterback: Being the competitor that he is, Jeff Driskel will be hard on himself for his three-turnover performance and get to work correcting his mistakes. One of the keys here is making sure his confidence doesn't wane. His coaches and teammates need to let him know he's their leader, he's their quarterback and they trust him running the offense.

That message can be sent more clearly by actions than just mere words. Driskel needs his confidence to remain intact. Because a quarterback lacking confidence cannot lead (to Atlanta or anywhere else good).

* 2. Get healthy on the O-line: The Gators found themselves in bad shape up front in the fourth quarter against Miami when both starting tackles (D.J. Humphries and Tyler Moore) left with injuries. UF coach Will Muschamp said both are expected to return this week, along with starting guard Jon Halapio, who missed all of camp and the first two games with a partially torn pectoral muscle.

The depth UF thought it was going to have coming into the season is no longer there. The Gators need to get healthy and stay healthy on the offensive line. If that happens, the line still has a chance to be a strength. If more injuries hit, the offense is really going to struggle against the challenges that lie ahead (UT, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina).

* 3. Take care of TOs, red zone: The bottom line is the Gators will have no shot to win the East if they don't take better care of the football and become much more productive in the red zone. The red-zone turnovers were killers in the UM loss.

Had UF kicked field goals on first down on those failed red-zone trips, the Gators would have won the game. Driskel, especially, needs to be more aware of the pass rush (and when to throw the ball away or tuck it and run) and needs to break the habit of trying to force passes into coverage. Poor ball security led to UF's only loss in the regular season a year ago.

The same thing cost them the game in Miami. If they take care of the ball and score points in the red zone (field goals would be fine), this team will have a chance in every game the rest of the way.

* 4. Kill the 'Cat: Miami coach Al Golden told the ESPN announcers before the Miami game that the 'Canes knew when Trey Burton lined up at quarterback in the Wildcat formation he was no threat to throw the ball. So, Golden instructed all 11 players to attack the football when Burton lined up in the shotgun.

Sure enough, on a first-and-goal from the seven-yard line in the first half, Burton took the snap and was immediately swarmed in the backfield for a four-yard loss. It was a wasted down (and wasted yards) for an offense that cannot afford to do that, especially in the red zone. If the Gators intend to keep the Wildcat in the offensive package, they need to let Burton throw a pass to just show the threat is there.

If not, SEC teams will catch on just like UM did and create negative plays. If the coaches are afraid to let Burton throw the ball, then maybe killing the 'Cat is the way to go.

* 5. Start faster on defense: While many wanted to praise UF's defensive effort in the Miami game, Muschamp was quick to point out that the early mistakes on defense set the wrong early tone and gave Miami momentum that it carried throughout the game. Had the defense opened the game with the same kind of effort and performance it exhibited over the final three quarters, the Hurricanes would not have jumped out in front and the Gators likely would have won the game.

That should be a lesson learned. Knowing that the offense continues to struggle with consistency, the defense has to have the mentality to establish dominance early and make some big plays that could put the offense in a favorable position to gain some first-quarter momentum.

Robbie Andreu is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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