Florida needed help from Tennessee and Kentucky. It did not require assistance from Vanderbilt in Week 5. The Gators beat the brakes off the Commodores in what was easily their best and most convincing performance of 2017.
Florida demonstrated competence under the luckless Luke Del Rio, who soon got knocked out with yet another injury. When Feleipe Franks entered, it was easy to think the Gators’ offense would lose traction, but Florida remained firmly in control. The offensive line — much maligned and often outclassed in the first four weeks of the season — came alive and legitimately outplayed Vanderbilt’s front seven, a plot development few could have predicted with confidence.
A more unlikely turn of events: Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who had plainly struggled to find the right plays for an undermanned offense saddled by the suspensions to Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett, clearly outcoached Vanderbilt defensive mastermind, Derek Mason. It’s true that Mason couldn’t have done much about his front seven losing in the trenches to Florida’s offensive line — that was a matter of effort and physical prowess — but in terms of play design, Nussmeier put receivers in various positions which Vanderbilt’s supposedly formidable secondary (coming off its masterclass against Kansas State) could not figure out. On short routes, intermediate routes, and deep routes, in the middle third of the field and along the sidelines, Nussmeier maneuvered his chess pieces in ways Mason wasn’t able to solve.
Florida clearly and substantially evolved in Week 5. Now comes the challenge: Making sure that evolution sticks and remains firmly in place for the rest of the season.
Here are three keys to this Saturday’s game against an LSU team which is drowning in misery after a home-field loss to Troy:
1) FORCE LSU TO WIN WITH THE PASS
LSU star running back Derrius Guice was listed as questionable early in the week. Even if he plays, he won’t be at 100 percent. Florida might worry about Guice’s status, but it can’t overthink its approach to the LSU offense, which figures to be the centerpiece of the game.
LSU scored three touchdowns against Troy. One came on a four-yard “drive,” meaning the offense didn’t create its own points. The other two touchdowns were scored only after Troy had established a 17-point lead. The final touchdown with 1:59 left in regulation was a garbage touchdown, the product of Troy giving up yards as long as LSU continued to eat up clock with middle-of-the-field completions. LSU’s offense essentially did nothing of value at home against a Sun Belt defense. Yes, Troy is a good team, but no LSU offense should never get dominated by a Sun Belt team at home. For three and a half quarters, that’s exactly what happened.
Florida’s surest path to victory is to make very few mistakes, force LSU to earn every point it gets, and win a 20-10 game in which the offense merely takes advantage of Tiger turnovers and (or) short-field situations. Expecting another 38-point bonanza from the offense feels unrealistic. Shutting down LSU’s impotent offense seems highly attainable.
This brings us back to the main point of focus: forcing Danny Etling (or backup Myles Brennan) to beat them downfield. Florida should be ready to take away Guice, but even if Guice doesn’t play, the Gators must establish physical superiority with their front seven against an LSU offensive line which was tossed around by Troy.
Part of a defensive plan which forces an opposing offense to win with the pass involves discipline on screens and misdirections. LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada, seeing how feeble his O-line has been, could very easily and logically carve out several screen plays or throwback passes which will try to take advantage of the natural temptation to overpursue. The use of screen passes can also slow down Florida’s pass rush and make the Gators hesitate.
Stopping the run comes first, but discipline in the pass rush is a close second for UF on Saturday.
2) UNPREDICTABLE YET SENSIBLE ON OFFENSE
Without Tyrie Cleveland, Florida loses another big offensive weapon, which reinforces the idea that Florida is more likely to win a 20-10 game than a 31-30 game. The Florida offense is unlikely to be great in this game, but it can be good. Everyone would love another 38-point game, but a steady ball-control offense which constantly maintains field position will give the Gators a good chance against LSU’s scuffling offense.
In order to control the ball, Nussmeier — who finally found a groove against Vanderbilt — needs to realize why his offense flowed well in Week 5 yet anticipate that LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will take notice.
Florida’s offensive approach worked against Vanderbilt because the Gators brought pronounced variety to the table. Nussmeier used wheel routes early, mixed in some long throws in the middle of the game, and used screens in the second half to constantly keep the Commodores off balance. Nussmeier constantly changed the angles from which he attacked Derek Mason’s defense. The offensive line naturally helped, but the use of a screen game enables Florida to move the ball even when its offensive line becomes less imposing.
Nussmeier must build on that against LSU.
Mixing plays is naturally important, but without Cleveland, Florida’s running backs will likely need to become pass catchers more often. Nussmeier can self-scout by realizing that Aranda will probably try to take away the run and force Franks to push the ball downfield. Florida will need to run the ball to win, but Nussmeier can be unpredictable in the service of a sensible end goal (ball control) by passing on first downs and (just as importantly) passing in very low-risk ways.
Flat passes to running backs, plus a wide receiver (bubble) screen game to supplement the more traditional running back screen game, will enable Franks to make a lot of simple throws off simple reads. Florida might inflate its passing statistics, but not in ways which will challenge Franks as a passer. Establishing this foundation on 1st and 10 — or some other approach Aranda isn’t expecting based on Vanderbilt film — could enable Florida to pass the ball more, yet not take big chances. Five-yard passes on first down would set up 2nd and 5s, which the Gators will take all game long if they can replicate the scenario.
Nussmeier doesn’t need to create fireworks, but he does need to get LSU off balance. Variations of tendencies can achieve that objective.
3) NO “KICK-BACKS”
Given the depths of LSU’s struggles on offense, Florida’s punt and kickoff cover units should place special emphasis on either not kicking to LSU’s deep men, who can bust a return, or making sure kicks are high (fair-caught punts) or touchbacks (kickoffs) to prevent the Tigers from taking a kick back… to the end zone. Florida doesn’t necessarily have to flourish on special teams; it merely has to avoid losing on special teams, and more generally, make all the routine plays so that LSU doesn’t collect hidden yards or net gains in points.
If both teams give away the same amount of points on special teams or through turnovers, Florida should feel good about its chances. If the Gators give away just three more points than LSU does, that could be all the Tigers will need to win in The Swamp.