August 28, 2009
Just in time for SEC Week, SI.com's Andy Staples goes in search of a blueprint for beating Florida, a favorite topic in these parts over the last few months. Staples zeroes in on a pair of test cases, the Gators' loss to Ole Miss last year and to Auburn in 2007, which are similar in that a) Florida was a huge home favorite in both cases, and b) Both Auburn and Ole Miss generally limited the Gators' big plays. (The Rebels did give up a couple big passes last year, but were stronger against the run.)
Staples focuses specifically on both teams' strong defensive lines and their ability to isolate Tebow in the running game, with a money quote from then-Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp:
"We had to have patience in the play calling, which is what we did," Muschamp told The Birmingham News. "We made them bleed for the yards."
The bleeding metaphor is apt -- other than a couple big passes to Percy Harvin, the Gators didn't break any plays, and had a long run of just 12 yards -- but not only for the defense that has line up across from Tim Tebow. As I noted way back when, at least as important as the defense in that win was the blood-letting Auburn's offense performed on the clock:
From that boxscore, the blueprint is this: Get the ball first, for starters, and get the ball last, and keep the ball forever in between. The Tigers ended with eleven drives to the Gators' nine, got off 70 plays to UF's 55 and "won" time of possession by six minutes.
But that win was just as notable for what Auburn didn't do: For example, I'm not convinced that Auburn really stopped Tebow, who personally accounted for 276 total yards and led five drives (again, out of a mere nine) of 66, 51, 48, 38 and 89 yards for points or highly probable points. Florida averaged 5.7 per snap, a full yard better per play than it averaged against Ohio State in the mythical championship blowout the previous January -- for 24 less points. Even with a two-score lead deep into the second half, Auburn didn't put much pressure on Tebow, didn't force a barrage of turnovers, didn't block a punt or bust a big return, didn't even have a dramatic play on offense (AU's longest gain of the night was 25 yards).
On the other hand, the Tigers were relentless and methodical on offense, picking up 23 first downs despite a general lack of firepower, which led to six drives that went longer than three-and-a-half minutes (two of which ended in punts after traveling just 23 and 17 yards, respectively, but combined to take more than half a quarter off the clock with a lead). They have that in common with LSU, which beat Florida with essentially the same general template in the heavyweight fight of that season two weeks later. Les Miles' Tigers didn't fare very well against Tebow in the first half, when he effectively stole the show from the vaunted LSU defense with scoring drives of 47, 77, and 72 yards in just four full possessions; on his first possession of the second half, following an LSU touchdown drive that milked seven minutes off the clock, Tebow took the Gators 75 yards for another touchdown in a little over two minutes. Five drives, 272 yards, 24 points.
But from that point on, Tebow didn't have the ball; not counting desperation time in the final minute, he had five snaps in the first 14:51 of the fourth quarter, thanks to an interception of the hands of one of his receivers, a subsequent short-field touchdown by LSU and then the epic, 15-play, 60-yard, eight-plus-minute, game-winning touchdown drive featuring two 4th-and-1 conversions and the decisive touchdown with 1:09 to play. Like Auburn, LSU didn't beat Florida with big plays -- its longest gain of that night was 21 yards -- but instead by methodically chalking up first downs (25) and keeping Tebow on the sideline. The Tigers "won" time of possession by a 12-minute margin.
The bite-and-hold approach was much easier done against that Gator defense, which was slightly below average by SEC standards, than against essentially the same cast this fall, two years older and lightyears better. It will be much tougher, too, to limit big plays now that Tebow's supporting cast has expanded to include home run threats Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and, in all likelihood, hyped up-and-comers Deonte Thompson and Andre Debose. And as effective as those defenses were against the Florida offense in relative terms, each holding UF well below its '07 season averages in yards, points and yards per play, they still required a specific set of essentially random circumstances -- a fumble and a blocked field goal that ended Florida scoring threats for Auburn; a fumble and a fluky pick for LSU -- to win in the closing seconds. Last year, Ole Miss got three fumbles and a missed PAT that provided the decisive margin in a game the Rebels were outgained by 118 yards and 14 first downs. So any potential Gator-killer has to be good, of course -- disciplined, smart and consistent -- and then, when that's accomplished, a little lucky, too.
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Hat tip: Blutarsky.