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Monday September 30, 2013Nobody's Perfect: Not Even Dominant Gators Defense

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Will Muschamp talks about his defense playing the perfect game. Not just this week or last week, but every week. It’s a lofty goal, for sure. Let’s face it, it’s also unattainable.

Yet his players understand exactly what he’s talking about.

“We’re very critical of ourselves,” senior safety Jalen Watkins said.

Through four games, the statistical data attached to the 2013 UF defense is thoroughly impressive. The Gators, after Saturday night’s 24-7 win at Kentucky, now lead the Southeastern Conference in eight major defensive categories, including scoring, total yards, rushing and passing, plus third-down efficiency.

DEE-FENSE

The Gators rank first in the SEC in eight major defensive categories. Here’s where

they stand nationally in those categories:

CATEGORY

Data

SEC Rank

NCAA Rank (leader)

Scoring defense

12.8 ppg

1st

8th (Louisville 6.8)

Total defense

202.5 ypg

1st

2nd (Michigan State 188.8)

Rushing defense

53.5 ypg

1st

1st

Pass defense

149.0 ypg

1st

6th (Michigan State 130.5)

Pass efficiency

86.1

1st

6th (Michigan State 72.63)

First downs

11.5 pg

1st

2nd (Louisville 11.)

3rd Down percentage

17.8

1st

1st

Red Zone percentage

66.7

1st

12th (Baylor 44.4) 

In the win over UK, the only points the Wildcats scored came on a fake field goal in the first quarter when kicker Joe Mansour ran 25 yards for a touchdown to cap the Cats’ opening drive. Mansour, with that lone carry, ended up as Kentucky’s leading rusher on the night, as UK gained just 98 yards (only 30 rushing) the rest of the game.

With Florida holding a nearly 18-minute advantage in possession, the UF defense found itself with so much free time on its hands that sophomore defensive end Dante Fowler III found himself on the sidelines sharing banter with teammates to pass the time as the Gators offense played keep-away in the fourth quarter. Kentucky ran just 21 plays (on three series) in the second half -- and that included one 15-play drive that ended on downs.

“That was the fastest half of my life; even back when I was in high school,” Fowler said of the game the lasted just two hours and 48 minutes. “I mean, that's our job to get three-and-outs. When you get as many three-and-outs like we did, you kind of wish like maybe we shouldn't get as many three-and-outs.”

Not really.

Three-and-outs are actually the best way to achieve the utopian goal of defensive perfection, which again will be the objective this weekend when the 17th-ranked Gators (3-1, 2-0) welcome Arkansas (3-2, 0-1) Saturday night at Florida Field.

The Razorbacks have lost two straight, including an ugly 28-24 defeat at Rutgers two weeks ago, but they played that one without starting quarterback Brandon Allen, who returned Saturday and helped give Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M a handful before losing 45-33 at home.

The Hogs will have the Gators’ completed attention, especially for the first night game in the “Swamp” in nearly two years.

“They have a well-rounded football team,” Coach Will Muschamp said Monday. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Despite those back-to-back defeats, Arkansas figures to represent the toughest opponent the Gators have faced to date. It also will mark the first home start for fourth-year junior quarterback Tyler Murphy, who has been both productive and also a calming influence on the UF offense since his battlefield promotion two games ago when quarterback Jeff Driskel was lost for the season with a broken leg against Tennessee.

“I’m going to keep doing what I’m comfortable with, and that’s just prepare and watch a lot of film and just keep pushing guys to do well,” said Murphy, who through nearly two games has completed 72 percent of his passes for 290 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. “I don’t feel like I need to add any more stress on myself. I’ve got a lot of good playmakers around me. My offensive line has done a great job. I just feel like I have to maintain focus on managing the game and getting first downs.”

Meanwhile, his defense will look to maintain the stingy and disruptive behavior that has allowed opponents just 46 first downs (11.5 per game), the second-fewest in the country, and a measly 17.8-percent third-down conversion rate, the best in the country.

Getting off the field on third down might be the No. 1 point of emphasis for the Florida defensive coaches.

“That’s go time,” Fowler said.

UF has stopped teams on 37 of 45 third-down opportunities because the Gators have defensive linemen who get pressure with four-man rushes and defensive backs who play outstanding man-to-man coverage. That allows options as far as blitzes and varying zone packages to confuse the quarterback.

“I think our defensive staff does a really good job of mixing those as far as our rush, our pressure package, our man concepts and our zone concepts, so you keep the offense off balance,” Muschamp said. ““That’s the one thing we changed. There’s a little subtle change on first-and-10 and second down for us. But third down can be very drastic depending on the team we’re facing and what we carry into a game. We’re trying to make the offense adjust in those situations each game based on what they do.”

In the wins over the Volunteers and Wildcats, the Gators held those two teams to a combined 6-for-21 on third down. Tennessee, though, is ranked last in the league in total offense; Kentucky is 11th.

The Razorbacks check in at No. 10, but they’re averaging 237 yards per game on the ground, thanks to rookie tailback Alex Collins, who leads the SEC with 597 yards through five games and became the first freshman in league history to rush for 100 yards in the first three games of his career. If that's not impressive then consider he's the true freshman anywhere to do so since (get this) Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson in 2004.

The Hogs' ground attack doesn’t stop there. Sophomore Jonathan Williams has another 471 rushing yards and averages 6.5 per pop.

Arkansas’ players pride themselves in their physical play, having stated they want opponents still feeling the after-effects of a game with the Hogs three and four days later.

That was pointed out to Fowler.

“We’re a physical team, too,” he said.

That was certainly the case last time out. The Gators imposed their offensive will on the Wildcats in the form of 28 carries and 176 rushing yards from sophomore running back Matt Jones, who appears to have beaten the viral infection bug that kept him out of training camp and slowed him nearly a month into the regular season.

Against Kentucky, Jones was in the game until the final snap, pounding away behind an offensive line that loved the rhythm it found in a running game that netted 246 yards on 46 attempts and a pair of touchdowns.

“At the end of the game, we were in the huddle just laughing,” Jones said. “[The linemen] like to go over 200 yards a game. They definitely enjoyed it. They told me after the game they had a great time out there and getting me back, seeing myself the same as last year. Definitely, this week, knowing we have to run the ball a lot downhill, they feel real good about it.”

But like their defensive counterparts, they know they're far from perfect.

“Well, the defense was on the field” for the fake field goal,” Watkins reminded. “That was scored on us.”

And they’re still not happy about it.

 

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