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Florida's SEC-leading defense faces a big challenge against LSU's high-powered offense.

Monday October 7, 2013Hold That Tiger: Gators Defense Faces Biggest Challenge To Date at Death Valley

Florida's SEC-leading defense faces a big challenge against LSU's high-powered offense.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They’ve basically manhandled opposing offenses through five games.

Any breakdowns, such as a couple quick touchdowns in the loss at Miami or a long drive for a score in Saturday night’s defeat of Arkansas, have been corrected with sideline adjustments the Florida Gators have taken to the field and executed with razor-sharp precision.

This weekend, however, could be different.

With apologies to Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas -- UF’s last three victims are a combined 0-6 in Southeastern Conference play -- when the 17th-ranked Gators (4-1, 3-0) venture into Death Valley to take on 10th-ranked LSU (5-1, 2-1), the game will mark a substantial uptick in talent and explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball.

Not to mention what figures to be a maniacal atmosphere at Tiger Stadium. 

“It’s a big challenge,” senior safety Jaylen Watkins said. 

Whereas Arkansas (12th), Kentucky (13th) and Tennessee (14th) offenses rank at the bottom of the SEC, LSU checks in third in scoring (45.5 points per game), third in passing yards (291.5) and fourth in total yards (488.8). That should make for quite the contrast against a UF defense that leads the SEC, having given up the fewest points (12.2) and yards (217.0) per game. 

UF coach Will Muschamp uses the phrases “good on good” when talking about matching his first units against one another to make practice more competitive. 

How’s this for some delicious statistical good on good? 

LSU’s offense, under former NFL coordinator Cam Cameron and led by red-hot quarterback senior Zach Mettenberger, tops the SEC in pass efficiency (190.1), third-down conversion rate (58.3 percent) and red-zone success (90 percent, including 22 touchdowns in 30 possessions). UF’s defense, though, leads the league in all three of those key categories, holding opponents to a passer rating of 81.2, limiting third downs at a 23.1-percent clip and surrendering just four touchdowns in nine red-zone penetrations. 

Something has to give, right? 

The Tigers already have been in a handful of shootouts, beating Texas Christian 37-27, Auburn 35-21 and Mississippi State 59-26, while losing a breathtaking offensive thriller at Georgia 44-41.

The Gators could be in for one of those back-and-forth affairs. 

“No sir,” junior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to let that happen.” 

Given that Florida’s offense has performed more along the statistical lines of their three SEC victims -- UF ranks 11th in yardage (393.4) and 13th in scoring (25.0 points ppg) -- it would make sense the Gators need to avoid a scoreboard breaker.

Not that they’re afraid of one, mind you. 

Not with quarterback Tyler Murphy developing, maturing and improving had rapid-fire pace since taking over for injured Jeff Driskel. 

“But with the defense we have and stuff like that, I think it's just important that we take care of the ball, try to stay on the field as much as possible,” said Murphy, who has completed 72.2 percent of his throws for 530 yards, five touchdowns an one interception. “If we do that, if we keep their offense off the field, I think we can be successful.” 

That’s the formula Coach Will Muschamp would prefer. He’s certainly been on both sides and knows how much fans enjoy those high-scoring games. 

Coaches, he said, only enjoy them when they win. 

“I remember one against Oklahoma,” he said. 

When Muschamp was defensive coordinator at Texas, the Longhorns and Sooners went up and down the field against each other in a Red River Shootout that lived up to its nickname. Texas outlasted OU 45-35, beating eventual Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, in a game of nearly 900 yards of offense.

Muschamp enjoyed it. He won.  

“If it takes 51-50, c’mon, let’s go,” he said. 

The best offense the Gators have faced so far came on their trip to Miami in Week 2. The Hurricanes, now averaging 488.6 yards per game, managed just 212 yards that day; just 69 yards and four first downs the final three quarters. 

So pardon UF’s defensive players if they aren’t feeling 51-50. Or anything remotely close. 

“I heard they’re high scoring, [but] our job is not to let them score,” sophomore defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. said. “That’s what we’re going to try to do.”

That means pressuring Mettenberger, who has grown leaps and bounds from where he was a year ago after transferring from junior college. 

Mettenberger has hit 68 percent of his passes for 1,738 yards, 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He has a big-time duo of wideout targets in Jarvis Landry (42 catches, 616 yards, 7 TDs) and Odell Beckham (35-686-6), plus the second-leading rusher in the SEC in Jeremy Hill (594 yards, 9 TDs). 

“He's more effective taking care of the ball, he’s more accurate with the ball,” Muschamp said of Mettenberger. “I think he's got a better understanding in the passing game, obviously, last year being his first year as the guy. Everybody matures at different ages. I know we're in an instant coffee society, where we want it right now. That's not always the way it is. Sometimes that happens with players. From a maturity standpoint he's playing at an extremely high level.”

It will be up to the Gators to match that high level.

“It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be intense,” Cummings said. “It’s going to be something to look forward to.”


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