GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Yes, it was Vanderbilt, not South Carolina.
The Commodores’ offense, minus leading rusher Warren Norman, didn’t exactly produce the type of unrest needed for Florida’s defense to lose much sleep.
Still, Nostradamus would have had trouble forecasting the dominance Florida’s defense displayed in a 55-14 win.
The Gators held Vanderbilt to 109 total yards – the fewest they have allowed since the 2007 BCS title game against Ohio State – and to 2 of 16 on third-down conversions. The Commodores’ seven first downs were the fewest allowed by the Gators in an SEC game in 12 years, and UF’s 13 tackles-for-loss were the most in a single game under Urban Meyer.
“We did play great defense,’’ Meyer said. “That’s as good defense as we’ve played here.’’
To add to Vanderbilt’s misery, Gators defensive end Lerentee McCray knocked out Zac Stacy – Norman’s replacement – with a big hit in the second quarter. The tackle forced a fumble and forced Stacy from the game with a concussion. The fumble was returned for a touchdown by senior defensive tackle Terron Sanders.
But that was Vanderbilt, and South Carolina and former Gators head coach Steve Spurrier offer a different challenge with the SEC East title on the line at the Swamp.
“Our game is to stay on the field a bit,’’ Spurrier said Tuesday. “We have to run, we all know that. We have to run Marcus Lattimore and whoever the running back is in the game. We have to throw completions and stay out there.’’
With freshman Lattimore (752 yards, 11 touchdowns) the second-leading rusher in the SEC behind Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the Gators must keep track of him at all times. Slowed by a bruised knee in South Carolina’s 41-20 loss to Arkansas last week, Lattimore rushed only 11 times for 30 yards.
An inability to stop the run played a large role in Florida’s midseason three-game losing streak. In the Gators’ six wins, they have allowed an average of 91.3 yards rushing. In their three losses, they allowed 181 yards rushing per game.
“That’s been our biggest focus,’’ Sanders said. “We don’t ever want to give up too many running yards.’’
The Gators are preparing as if Lattimore will be at full-speed.
“We’ve got to come at them, stop the run,’’ Florida senior safety Ahmad Black said. “Obviously that’s the first thing. They’ve got a great back. We’ve got to stop the run and try to force them to beat us by passing the ball. We’ve got to pressure the quarterback and play good defense in the secondary.’’
While Lattimore is considered one of the top first-year players in the country, junior quarterback Stephen Garcia is enjoying his finest season. Garcia is fifth in the nation in passing efficiency and has thrown for 13 touchdowns and run for four.
Garcia had perhaps his finest game when led the Gamecocks to a 35-21 upset of No. 1-ranked Alabama last month, hitting 17 of 20 passes and three touchdowns.
Florida’s pass rush has been lacking at times this season, but in the victory over Vanderbilt, the Gators had four sacks. They hope to pressure Garcia into mistakes with the same type of pressure.
“We can’t let him get comfortable [in the pocket],’’ Sanders said. “As soon as we let him get comfortable, then we’re going to have issues. We’ve got to keep him with happy-feet in the pocket having him worry that somebody is going to hit him.’’
While they want to pressure Garcia, Black has noticed a different Garcia on film than the one the Gators have faced in the past.
“Over the years, he has gotten better,’’ Black said. “He takes on the blitzes and the pressure now. He used to just try to get the ball away, but now he sits back there and with everything in his face, he still gets the ball thrown.’’
When Garcia has time to throw, his favorite target is Alshon Jeffery, the SEC’s leading receiver. Jeffery has already surpassed the 1,000-yard barrier (1,034 yards, seven touchdowns) and is averaging 17.5 yards per catch. To try and limit Jeffery’s touches, the Gators plan to have cornerback Janoris Jenkins glued to Jeffery for much of the game.
“I’d imagine he’ll spend a good portion of his day there,’’ Meyer said.
The Gators are ranked second in the SEC and seventh nationally in total defense, allowing 292.6 yards a game. South Carolina is averaging 395.3 yards per game, but in the loss to Arkansas, the Gamecocks fell 100 yards shy of their season average.
Much like the Gators understand the challenge of slowing down the Gamecocks’ well-balanced attack, South Carolina sees Florida’s defense as a major roadblock to Atlanta.
“We’ve got to run the ball,’’ Lattimore said. “They are fast as any other SEC defense. They probably have got the most athletes of any defense in the SEC. They are going to be ready. We have to play real hard on offense.”