A Florida defense that has always prided itself on its ability to stuff the run suddenly can’t stop anybody. Or even slow them down, for that matter.
The Gators are getting gashed on the ground like they haven’t in many years.
Over the past three games — losses to Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina — the Gators have given up an alarming 789 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
That comes out to an average of 263 rushing yards and almost four touchdowns a game.
The Gators have been giving up chunk play after chunk play on the ground, with an occasional explosive thrown in for good measure.
Sony Michel had touchdown runs of 74 and 45 yards to lead a Georgia rushing attack that piled up 292 yards on the Gators, 141 by Michel.
Missouri rushed for 227 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-16 rout two weeks ago.
Last Saturday, South Carolina, a team that has struggled to run the ball all season, ran through the porous Gators for 220 yards and four touchdowns.
And looking ahead, the potential is there for another opposing offense to run wild on the Gators this Saturday in The Swamp. UAB has a potent ground game led by standout tailback Spencer Brown, who has rushed for 1,177 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
What has happened to Florida’s once-sound run defense?
Interim head coach Randy Shannon offers a simple explanation.
“Youth. Injuries,” he said. “And guys just not filling their gaps at the proper time. The consistency factor. You think about it. (South Carolina) popped one, touchdown. Then all of a sudden it’s fourth-and-1 and we fit everything right (and get a stop).
“That’s what I mean, the consistency of playing the defense all the time. When you’re young — not making up excuses — you’re going to have those inconsistencies. Is it our job to continue to get it out of them? It is our job to continue to get that out of them.”
Like just about every other area on this decimated team, the defensive front has been impacted by injuries.
Defensive end Jordan Sherit (knee) and outside linebacker Kylan Johnson (hamstring), both starters, are out for the season. Starting defensive end Jachai Polite remains out with an injured shoulder. And Jabari Zuniga continues to play through a shoulder injury.
But, of course, there is more to Florida’s rushing problem than just injuries. There are other issues, mainly players being undisciplined and failing to carry out assignments, and an overall lack of depth and speed at linebacker.
“So what’s happening is we’ve got some bad stuff on the team, I guess,” junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan said. “We’ve been purging it out. We’ve been getting better at it. We’ve been cleaning things up. A lot of things have been wrong, but we have Coach (Chris) Rumph and Coach Shannon fixing all that.
“We definitely performed to a higher level (against South Carolina), but it just doesn’t come overnight, coming from zero to hero. Taking the baby steps. I promise you guys we’ll play better the next game.”
Bryan would not reveal what the “bad stuff” is.
“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that,” he said. “It’s confidential.”
Middle linebacker and new team leader David Reese said there is nothing secretive about it. UF’s problems stopping the run can be traced to self-inflicted wounds.
“The biggest struggles, those things usually come from just mental breakdowns or things like that,” Reese said. “Just probably gap control and things like that. It’s nothing that others do that we can’t really stop. It’s really just us. That’s what’s the most frustrating thing about it is that it’s really us.”
Whatever it is, Florida simply isn’t getting it done on run defense. Opposing offenses have been running through and around the Gators with apparent ease over the past three games.
The forecast isn’t good for Saturday, either, with another potent running attack set to challenge the Gators.
The Blazers not only have an exceptional running back, they have a dangerous dual-threat quarterback in A.J. Erdely, the second-leading rusher on the team who also has thrown for 1,741 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“They’re explosive,” Shannon said. “They’re second in their conference in rushing. Conference USA has always been an explosive conference for years because it’s run the ball, line up in the spread, always have a quarterback who can run the football. That’s another dimension to add to them, what they can do.
“The run game and what they’re doing presents problems, because you you either take the running back or take the quarterback. You’ve got to figure out which one you want to do in your scheme, which one to take. When you got guys like that, it will give you problems.”
The Gators already have problems. The question is, can they figure them out between now and Saturday?
If they can’t, the gashing likely will continue.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.
Who: University of Alabama at Birmingham (7-3) vs. Florida (3-6)
When: 4 p.m.
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850