In wins at Tennessee and Mississippi State and at home against LSU, the Florida defense played with what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham likes to refer to as an edge.
The Gators were flying around, playing fast and physical and with relentless effort, straining to give their best effort on every play, refusing to let go of that rope.
When they played with that edge, they impacted games, won games.
When they played with that edge, they came up with momentum-changing sacks and turnovers.
Playing with an edge is what the UF defense was all about earlier this season. It gave the Gators their identity.
But during the bye week three weeks ago, the Gators somehow lost their edge. Now, after back-to-back one-side losses to Georgia and Missouri, the defense is desperate to get it back.
“It’s like I told the guys, you need to go back and look how you felt in the locker room after playing at Mississippi State, how you felt after winning at Tennessee, when we played LSU and beat them,” Grantham said. “You’ve got to make sure that you give relentless effort and you give that strain every snap.
“Everything you do, whether it’s walk through in the morning before the game, whether it’s your five plays or 50 plays. Whatever it is, there’s a certain standard that you’ve got to play to. If you’re not doing that you’re cheating yourself and our team.
“We’ve got to make sure that we play with that edge to allow us to compete against the people we’re playing against.”
Playing with an edge in those big earlier victories, the Gators produced turnovers, sacks, quarterback pressures and all kinds of big, negative plays.
Without the edge in the losses to Georgia and Missouri, the defense combined for only two sacks (one when Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock was forced out of bounds just shy of the line of scrimmage), no turnovers and only two quarterbacks hurries, none against the Tigers last Saturday.
The lack of turnovers and sacks has had a big impact in the losses.
“If you go back and look at the games in the SEC we’ve won, we’ve been able to affect the quarterback and create turnovers to allow us to win the game as a team,” Grantham said. “We haven’t done that the last two weeks. I can go back and show plays where we’re close, but close doesn’t get it done. It’s a production business and you’ve got to find ways to finish.
“Everybody can be a part of that, whether it’s tighter coverage, better get off, or maybe one guy eating up another guy for somebody. Everybody can be a part of that as a team to find a way to get those turnovers, to find a way to affect the quarterback to allow us to be functional.”
The Gators aren’t sure how or why they lost their edge on defense. But they do remember how they first got it. It started developing after the early loss to Kentucky, with a change in attitude and approach on the practice field.
Relentless effort and more physical play was stressed by Dan Mullen and the coaches. And the players bought in.
They’re trying to get back to that approach this week, with a potent South Carolina offense approaching.
“It’s all an aspect of a team effort,” junior middle linebacker David Reese said. “We’ve just got to get back to the grind, get back to the basics and work hard and find the answers through our hard work.”
Florida’s defense lost the edge it found early in the season. Now, the Gators are trying to get it back.
It’s all part of a process that this team is going through in Mullen’s first season.
“It’s still a young team,” Grantham said. “If you look, we’ve got a lot of guys coming back next year. Everything we do is a growing process. To be able to go to Jacksonville and play in that type of atmosphere as a top-10 team, it was a learning experience for us.
“The thing we’ve got to understand is that every week matters. Every week is important in this league. Everybody’s good. We need to make sure that we play with a certain edge to allow us to play to our opponents. If we do that, we’re fine. If we don’t, we’re going to have what happened on Saturday.”