GatorZone.com Senior Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Gators defensive tackle Jaye Howard was in the middle of the action Monday. He won’t be around next season, but Howard will be watching to see how good Florida’s young defense can be.
Howard had five tackles and 1.5 sacks – including one in which he tossed Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller to the ground like a rag doll – in the final game of his career.
The Gators sacked Miller six times and recorded a season-high 12 tackles-for-loss in the kind of defensive performance that Howard expects to see on a regular basis in years to come.
“When you look into the future, they are going to have a bright future next year. I’m going to be tuned in every Saturday,’’ Howard said of Florida’s defense. “It’s going to be built around our defensive line. I’m just looking forward to them to dominate the SEC next year.”
If the Gators’ defense plays with the kind of energy and toughness it did in Monday’s 24-17 Gator Bowl win over the Buckeyes, Florida shouldn’t need a win in a bowl game to ensure a winning record. That was the case Monday and the defense helped make sure head coach Will Muschamp’s first season ended with a winning record.
It all started up front for the Gators, where the defensive line of Howard, Sharrif Floyd, Omar Hunter and Ronald Powell helped keep the dangerous Miller in check. Floyd had the first 1.5 sacks of his career, Hunter forced a fumble and Powell added two tackles and a sack.
“We prepared well,’’ Powell said. “Coming into the game we were going to play our ball and give them a lot of movement and see if they could handle our movement. They didn’t handle it too well. That’s how we got home most of the time.’’
Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn also mixed in some blitzes to keep Miller off balance. Safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans each had a sack and when Miller did have time to pass the young secondary helped the defensive line by clamping down the Buckeyes’ receivers.
Miller finished 18 of 23 for 162 yards and two touchdowns, but most of his passes were short ones and the Gators played to contain Miller’s production in the running game by taking away the edges. The plan worked as Miller, Ohio State’s leading rusher with 695 yards entering the game, finished with only 20 yards on 15 rushes.
Ohio State tailback Dan Herron picked up 82 yards on 12 carries, but Hunter forced a Herron fumble that ended an Ohio State scoring threat and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy forced another fumble by Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey that led to a Caleb Strugis 17-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter for a 24-10 Gators lead.
Meanwhile, junior linebacker Jon Bostic, perhaps the most consistent defensive player for the Gators this season, had another stellar game with a team-high eight tackles, including four for a loss.
Bostic was pleased with the way the defense played on Monday and late in the season. In the regular-season finale the Gators limited Florida State to 95 total yards in a 21-7 loss.
Monday’s result was much more satisfying for a Florida defense that entered the game ranked ninth nationally in total defense, allowing 299.2 yards per game. Ohio State outgained the Gators 299 yards to 263, but the defense made the kind of plays that impact games.
“We want to prove we're one of those top defenses in the country [next season]," Bostic said. “We know it starts now. We're not going to wait till the summer time or wait until next fall in two-a-days.”
The performance left the defensive coordinator in Muschamp excited about what the young unit can become.
“I love those defensive performances,’’ Muschamp said. “I don’t mind scoring 50 either, though. I can tell you that. That’s been that way all season for us defensively. I think the future is definitely bright for what we are trying to do.’’
Besides the six sacks and forcing two turnovers, the Gators limited Ohio State to 2-for-10 on third-down conversions. They did it without regular starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the FSU loss.
With Easley absent, Floyd switched back and forth from his regular spot at defensive end to his more natural position inside at tackle.
“Everything's clicking right now," Floyd said. “That was good. I'm looking forward to more.”
Florida’s ability to contain Miller was the key. Miller passed for 235 yards and rushed for 100 yards in Ohio State’s loss to Michigan in the regular-season finale. The Gators spent much of their pre-game preparation focused on stopping the true freshman expected to be the centerpiece of next season’s Buckeyes offense for former Gators coach Urban Meyer.
To prepare for Miller’s elusiveness, fourth-string quarterback Tyler Murphy simulated Miller during bowl practices and offered the Gators some good looks because of his speed.
“You’ve got to give them credit,’’ Ohio State coach Luke Fickell said. “They did a good job of keeping [Miler] in the pocket, not running by him on a lot of situations.”
The Gators had little trouble finding space against Ohio State’s bigger offensive line.
“I looked up and I’m like, ‘Damn, I’m playing against giants,’ ’’ Howard said. “We played physical today and we were able to outwork them.”