GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There were few offensive highlights to celebrate on film for the Gators during their four-game losing streak. A promising September turned into a nightmare October in part due to a difficult schedule, an injured starting quarterback and a sputtering offense.
But in Saturday’s 26-21 win over Vanderbilt, Florida’s offense came out of hiding, picking up more yards in the first half (280) than it had in any of the previous four games.
With quarterback John Brantley still slowed by a tender ankle and running back Chris Rainey unavailable due to an ankle injury, Gators coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis opted for a different look.
This one had nothing to do with their sartorial style.
The Gators unveiled what is called “the pistol,” a formation in which Brantley worked from the shotgun with running back Jeff Demps or Mike Gillislee behind him. The fullback flanked Brantley to either the left or right.
The tweak to the offense resulted in immediate results as Demps rushed for a career-high 158 yards and Gillislee added 39 yards on nine carries. Equally as important, it allowed Brantley to do some things in the passing game with the threat of a running game back on the map.
The Gators had perhaps their best drive of the season to open the second quarter when they marched 85 yards on 15 plays, mixing in runs from the pistol, a few play-action passes and back-up quarterback Jacoby Brissett working under center when Brantley was not in the game.
The revamped approach gave the Gators something worth watching on film entering Saturday’s game at South Carolina. More importantly, the adjustments led to Florida’s first win in six weeks.
“You go back and look at the game, we were balanced on offense,’’ Muschamp said Monday. “Being able to run the ball helps us with our play-actions down the field, slows the defensive linemen down a good bit up front. We converted on third down about 50 percent.’’
Muschamp said the Gators will continue using the pistol mixed in with their other offensive sets to keep the ground game moving. Muschamp faced a UCLA team a season ago at Texas that ran a complete offensive package from the pistol, but in Florida’s case, the formation is more of a complement set in Weis’ pro-style offense.
“We were running basically from a set to be able to get to downhill running game,’’ Muschamp said. “We didn’t change what we were doing [philosophically]. You get out of a lateral run game. We’re a different offense when we are able to run the play-actions off of that.’’
The Gators were unable to utilize play-action calls when Brantley returned to the lineup against Georgia because his mobility remained compromised from his ankle injury. As Brantley’s ankle has improved, the playbook has expanded.
Brantley left Saturday’s win over the Commodores early in the fourth quarter due to an injury to his throwing arm. Muschamp said Brantley will return to practice Tuesday and should be ready to go for South Carolina.
“He will be fine. He just got a funny hit on it,’’ Muschamp said. “He could probably have gone back in. It’s nothing serious.’’
Brantley, too, is confident that there will be no lingering effects from the hit on his arm.
“It was just unfortunate that I couldn’t finish the game, but it was nothing major at all,’’ he said Monday. “I wasn’t worried.’’
The Gators’ ability to keep the Commodores guessing on defense was a vast departure from the second half of the Georgia game when Florida managed only 19 yards of total offense with Brantley finishing 2 of 14 passing after halftime.
With Brantley taking every snap from the shotgun – often with no running backs in the backfield – the Gators became too one-dimensional and Brantley was under constant pressure.
Muschamp said the pistol helps “create some throwing seams down the field it helps us with protection with our offensive line. When you’re able to do those things and mix it up it gets the defense off-kilter a little bit,’’ he said.
In a league that is known for its great defenses – highlighted by No. 1 LSU’s 9-6 win over No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night – establishing a running game is a must to win consistently regardless who your quarterback is.
“I don’t think right now anybody in the SEC is really lighting it up offensively,’’ Muschamp said. “I’ve said it before, this league is different than any other that week in and week out you’re going to play fronts that are really, really hard to block.’’
The Gators are banking on the pistol in helping their cause like it did Saturday by helping produce a much-needed win.
“It feels great,’’ defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. “The last couple of weeks I’ve not wanted to come to campus. It was really tough. It was a learning experience. It humbled a lot of people. If you can stick together through that, you can stick together through anything.’’