Downfield battle could decide UF-LSU game
Published: Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 6:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 at 7:59 p.m.
Big games in the SEC are usually won and lost on the line of scrimmage, which may very well turn out to be the case again in Baton Rouge on Saturday.
But heading into the Florida-LSU game, the real monster matchup is not necessarily the one between the big nasties up front. That distinction may belong to the fast, athletic guys in the back end of Florida's defense.
LSU's wide receivers vs. Florida's defensive backs.
This is a game that could be won or lost in the secondary — Florida's secondary, where some of the SEC's best defensive backs will be trying to cover and contain perhaps the nation's most dynamic pair of wide receivers in the nation in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.
“It's a big challenge,” UF senior safety Jaylen Watkins said. “They have athletic guys out there. They definitely go up and get the ball no matter if they are covered or not. (Quarterback Zach) Mettenberger is going to put it right on them and give them a chance to get it every time.
“We've got our work cut out for us this week. But this is what we look forward to as a secondary. I think it's going to come down to (how well we play in the secondary).”
The Florida secondary has been a strength on what has been, statistically, the best defense in the SEC this season. The Gators lead the league in pass defense (152 yards a game) and pass defense efficiency (81.2 percent) and are third in interceptions (eight).
Florida's pass defense will be facing its most daunting test of the season Saturday — and it's probably not even close.
Landry and Beckham have been dynamic, game-changing playmakers for the Tigers. They are the nation's most productive wide receiver tandem, combining for 77 receptions for 1,302 yards and 13 touchdowns. They are averaging almost 17 yards a reception. Beckham is also a dangerous return man and leads the nation in all-purpose yards (228.2 a game).
“Both those guys have got great top-end speed,” UF defensive coordinator D.J.Durkin said Wednesday. “Both of them one-on-one are tough to cover. The No. 1 thing you see is they are competitive. They go get the ball. They're out there competing. Every ball that's thrown near them, they want to go get.
“Overall, both those guys are as good as anyone in the country. The competitiveness they play with is what separates them. We try to hang our hat on that on defense, in that we play tough, physical competitive football.
“We're going to try and make you earn everything you get. So, we respect that when you see it in guys you go against.”
Watkins said Landry and Beckham are tenacious going after 50-50 balls, and they play a lot bigger than they are (Landry is 6-foot-1, Beckham is 6-0).
“They're not tall, but they can go up and get the ball like they're 6-3 or 6-4,” he said. “When the pressure is there, (Mettenberger) is going to give them a chance to go get it.”
With Florida liking to play a lot of press coverage in the secondary, the cornerbacks (Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson, Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole) are going to be in numerous one-on-one situations against the LSU receivers.
But UF coach Will Muschamp said the Gators will not play exclusively man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
“Defensive football is a lot like war,” Muschamp said. “If you line up in the same spot, you're going to get blown up.
“You've got to be able to change some things up, play some split safety, play some middle field coverage, get your numbers right in the box and stop the run. Against a quarterback like Mettenberger and the talent they have at the receiver position, you've got to be multiple in what you do.”
It's a difficult challenge, the biggest of the season so far, but one the UF defensive backs have embraced, Durkin said.
“Our guys are very competitive in the back end,” Durkin said. “They watch film just like (the coaches do) and they understand what they're in for this week in terms of it's going to be a battle.
“Those guys they're playing against are very competitive and very talented, too. It's not that we need to change what we're doing, we need to be on our game and be really good at it and understand that we're going to be in for a battle. Our guys do, and I think they're up for the challenge.”
The battle in the back end may be the biggest of them all Saturday.