Saturday September 22, 2012Splash Plays: Interceptions Key Stout Defensive Effort
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Kentucky broke the huddle in the second quarter and stacked two wideouts on both sides of the field, Jaylen Watkins knew what was coming.
“Even before the play, I was thinking, if he throws this, it’s a touchdown,” Watkins said.
As in a touchdown for the Florida defense, that is.
Sure enough, the Wildcats play unfolded exactly how Watkins had watched it over and over on tape last week and exactly how the UF coaching staff and scout team had presented it at practice. His receiver, lined up in back, feigned an outside route then delayed to break across the middle.
Watkins, the UF junior cornerback, was planted exactly in the spot where the ball was supposed to go.
The play was the highlight of the sort of defensive effort Coach Will Muschamp has been looking for in his two seasons at Florida. Not just because the 38-0 outcome marked the Gators first shutout win over a Southeastern Conference opponent in 11 years, but for the sight of turnovers -- three of them, all on interceptions of UK senior backup Morgan Newton -- and splash plays going the other way.
“Just huge,” Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “I told our guys, when you get a shutout it’s usually the result of getting turnovers. They change field position and shorten drives. So I was really proud to see our [defensive backs] get their hands on the those balls and get one in the end zone.”
In addition to the Watkins pick, and his 26-yard return that made the score 17-0, the Gators got an interception and 29-yard return from sophomore De’Ante Saunders and a pick from sophomore linebacker Mike Taylor, who took the play back 10 yards just before the half.
All told, the season-high three interceptions came with 65 return yards.
That was more than Kentucky’s 60 yards passing for the game.
The Gators expected to see sophomore Maxwell Smith, who was leading the Southeastern Conference in passing (and ranked eighth in the nation) coming into the game. Smith, though, was held out due to a shoulder injury, which brought out on senior backup Morgan Newton, who really struggled.
Newton finished just 7of-21 passing for 48 yards and all three of the picks. His passer rating at halftime was in the negative digits.
“We prepared for Smith, but when newton came out it was strictly business; just another quarterback,” Taylor said. “Our coaches gave us a great scheme and we just read his eyes. He was going through his progressions -- and we read them as well. We were able to jump on some balls.”
Kentucky’s 219 total yards were a season-low for the Wildcats.
“I think we’re making progress,” Muschamp said.
The numbers likely would have been different had Smith been able to go -- UK led the SEC in passing offense through three weeks -- but no one will ever know.
“In terms of a shutout, they’re hard to get no matter who you play,” Quinn said. “Kentucky came in certainly knowing how to throw it, so [turnovers] were a big emphasis for us going into the ball game.”
Doing something with them has been an emphasis since the Gators convened for spring practice and vowed to improve on the measly 14 turnovers the team had in 2011.
UF has seven through four games in 2012, with some yardage after the play.
“When we’re in scout team work and get interceptions we have to make sure we return them all the way -- and get blocks, too,” Watkins said. “It keeps their offense off the field and puts points on the board. If we can help the offense with that, even better.”
For Watkins, the interception was the first of his career. And the touchdown was his first since his prep days at Cape Coral High.
“Felt great,” he smiled. “Can’t explain it.”
Didn’t need to.