Gators' ground game gutted

LSU running back Jeremy Hill runs upfield against Florida during the second half at Tiger Stadium on Saturday in Baton Rouge, La.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 7:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 7:37 p.m.

In defending a multiple and potent offense, 17 certainly looks like a winning number. But throw in 121 — as in the number of yards LSU tailback Jeremy Hill gained on the ground — and things didn't quite add up for the Florida Gators last Saturday.

Usually strong run stuffers, the Gators got gutted in the ground game, and it was game changing in UF's 17-6 loss in Baton Rouge.

“It was disappointing, the fact that we couldn't stop what we knew they wanted to do,” junior linebacker Michael Taylor said. “They came in and established the run and that pretty much controlled most of the game for them.

“They really fed a lot of their offense off of the run: play-action, taking shots deep. So, you know when they establish the run like that, they're a multi-dimensional team, they can do both things. That's difficult for a team to stop when you don't know what's coming.”

The Gators went into last Saturday's game with a defensive goal of making the LSU offense one-dimensional by shutting down the run and forcing quarterback Zach Mettenberger into obvious passing situations that would bring a strong UF pass rush and one of the nation's best secondaries into play.

It is a plan that has worked often for the Gators under Will Muschamp.

This time it failed because Florida could not stop the run. As a result, there was no pressure on Mettenberger and the LSU passing game. As potent as the Tigers' passing game is, LSU needed to rely on it only occasionally. Mettenberger, in fact, attempted only 17 passes.

"We didn't do a good job of stopping the run, so I guess they didn't put the ball in the air as much as they did the last few weeks,” senior safety Jaylen Watkins said. “I wouldn't even say that we stopped their pass. We just needed to get off the field and get them in good situations to throw the ball. And they did a good job of just pounding the ball at the line of scrimmage. I guess they felt like they didn't have to throw the ball.”

LSU gutted the Gators in the running game like no team has since South Carolina did in 2011, with the Gamecocks rushing for 215 yards in a 17-12 USC victory.

UF went into last Saturday's game leading the SEC in rushing defense, giving up only 65.0 yards a game. They surrendered almost twice that to Hill alone.

“We didn't do the same job we've been doing up front on the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “They were getting some movement on us. Credit to them. They had a good game plan. Those guys came out (and) played hard, played physical. It was one of those things that kind of trickled down.

“We weren't winning at the line of scrimmage. That leads (to) the linebackers not fitting right all the time. One of those things. We've been able to do that in every game until that point. Obviously, that's an emphasis for us every week. We weren't able to do that in the game.”

Now, what has been a defensive strength all season — stopping the run — has become a concern as the Gators dive into the heart of their SEC East schedule (Missouri, Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina).

Durkin said the problems against LSU were created by a combination of things — mainly getting physically whipped by the the Tigers' offensive line and losing gap control.

“Yeah, a combination of all that,” Durkin said. “They got some movement early on on our guys. Then, sometimes, you try to compensate for that and do your own thing, and then all of a sudden you get guys out of gaps. Anytime you have that in a game there's a trickle effect that carries on for the rest of the game.”

The goal now is to stop that trickle effect, starting with Saturday's game at Missouri. The Tigers are second in the SEC in rushing, averaging 239.3 yards per game.

“Rushing defense is something we take pride in, and coach Muschamp definitely speaks on it every game,” Watkins said. “We're going to stop the run. The past few weeks, I wouldn't say that we did a good job of stopping the run."

Taylor said the defense has to get back to playing the way it usually doesn't against the run.

“I expect us to stop the run against them,” Taylor said. “Hit the person with the ball and get them on the ground. That's it. Don't let them run around like they plan on doing."

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