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Florida's offense faces sternest challenge of the season in Georgia's defense

Robbie Andreu
Gator Sports
Florida wide receiver Trevon Grimes is tackled by Georgia linebacker Monty Rice during the second half of their 2019 game at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.

Score on every position. That has been the Florida offense’s goal going into every game this season.

Well, on Saturday, let’s just say the goal might be a little less ambitious, but equally important in its own way.

 “You’ve got to find a way to make first downs,” offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said.

That’s the required approach when taking on the Georgia defense. First things first. Get first downs, move the chains, try to reach the red zone and then try to make the most of the opportunity once you get there.

This is far different than what the Gators have been doing this season with quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney and the other UF wide receivers. The UF offense has been flying up and down the field on everybody, making lots of big plays and scoring all kinds of points — 42 per game to be precise — and been seemingly unstoppable at times.

But not much of that kind of stuff has been allowed this season by a stout, fast and physical Georgia defense

“They have answers to the questions,” UF coach Dan Mullen said.

Yes, they do.

The Bulldogs lead the SEC in rushing defense (80 yards a game), total defense (300.6 yards a game) and scoring defense (16.2 points).

In a season where SEC offenses have been lighting up scoreboards and putting up record numbers, the Bulldogs are making their mark with a shut-down defense.

For the Gators, in the first four games of the season, playing on offense has been a whole lot of fun. Saturday in Jacksonville, it likely becomes more of a job, one where nothing comes easy.

That’s just what Georgia’s defense does to opposing offenses.

“It's going to be about strain and finish blocks, making contested catches, breaking tackles,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to make body-on-body catches and you’ve got to find a way to get first downs. First downs are critical. You can't have penalties and get into first-and-15, second-and-15.

“They're very well coached, so it's not like a lot of busts and stuff on defense, where you get guys just screaming free. So you’ve got to find a way to create different match-ups and use it to your advantage.” 

Even with the playmakers the Gators have, finding favorable match-ups can be problematic because the Bulldogs are strong everywhere you look.

UGA has a bunch of former four- and five-star prospects on defense being coached by one of the best defensive minds in football — head coach Kirby Smart.

“The talent level they have from front to back, it’s just the players and with Kirby they have a great defensive scheme,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “They do a good job of putting their guys in great positions to make plays.

“They have talent at every level of the defense. They can put big guys in to stop the run, they can put pass rushers in the game and get pressure, they can play man coverage, they can try to confuse you with a lot of different zones. They mix it up a lot.”

It can all be complicated and confusing for an opposing offense. But there is one aspect that should be clear: when the Gators have a chance to score, they need to score. Preferably touchdowns instead of field goals.

“The big thing is staying on the field. You have to be on the field to score points,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to get first downs, keep the chains moving. And once you get down in the red zone, you’ve got to make contested plays to come away with seven points and not kick field goals.

“We have some great players on offense. They have great players on defense. We’ve got to do a great job of putting our guys in a position where they can go and make plays.”

Injuries could play a role. The Bulldogs will be without two key starters Saturday — All-American safety Richard LeCounte and defensive end Julian Rochester — and maybe more. Star nose tackle Jordan Davis injured his elbow in a win at Kentucky last Saturday and has been day-to-day this week.

Johnson said those injuries likely will have minimal impact. 

“It's not like they won't have anybody that's not talented come out there and go play,” he said. “It won't change the scheme much. I think they're going to do what they do defensively. It'll just be somebody that's younger.

“They have an excellent system and they recruit great players to go play in that system. The biggest thing is us going out there and playing at an extremely high level and doing what we do to go win the game.” 

So, for the Gators, first things first Saturday. 

Make some first downs and take it from there.

Saturday

Who: No. 8 Florida (3-1) vs. No. 5 Georgia (4-1)

When: 3:30 p.m.

Where: TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville

TV: CBS

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Florida running back Dameon Pierce is grabbed by Georgia linebacker Monty Rice during the second half of their 2019 game at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville.