Given the tidal wave of negativity surrounding Florida football in a season which evokes images of the Hindenburg, the first, second and third priority for the Gators against South Carolina is to care. Yes, that’s a broken record — the same was said before the Missouri game — but as that trip to CoMo showed, it’s true. No X-and-O point of emphasis or tactical adjustment will mean a darn thing unless or until the Gators decide to invest their minds and bodies in playing hard on every snap. Let’s simply affirm that point before continuing with this piece. If Florida can actually give a darn against the Gamecocks, there won’t need to be a similar prelude the following week.
If Florida wants to beat South Carolina, and not merely play the Gamecocks close, here is the most realistic plan imaginable.
PASS FOR SHOW, RUN FOR DOUGH
It is an elemental part of offensive game plans: Run to set up the pass, or pass to set up the run? Florida needs to choose the latter on most occasions Saturday.
Putting a mediocre quarterback (Florida doesn’t have a good one) in third and long helps no one — no one in Orange and Blue, only opposing defenses. Therefore, the way to avoid such situations is to pick up good yardage on 1st and 10. Florida needs to give its quarterbacks easy reads and throws on first down, not being too ambitious and finding ways to get at least five yards. If Florida can consistently get 2nd and 5 or 2nd and 4, it can then spend the next plays running the ball.
One other point to add to this particular game key: If Florida is near the 50 or in plus territory, 4th and 1 should be a go-for-it down. Let’s be honest: The season has been a disaster. Florida has nothing to lose under these circumstances. The coaching staff needs to make the game fun for the players. Going for it more regularly on fourth down — and announcing one’s intent to do so before the game — at least offers a chance that players will relax and become more cheerful as a result. We have all seen football teams — mired in misery in the final months of their seasons — quietly punt the ball on 4th and 3 at the opposing team’s 45-yard line for no good reason. These teams fade away into the mist, losing their appetite for battle and forgetting that sports, at their core, are supposed to be fun… with winning being a central source of that fun.
Florida can’t quietly fade away. The coaching staff has to make aggressive decisions, and part of that means being bold on fourth and short. What this also means: If Florida does get 2nd and 5 on a consistent basis, it has THREE plays to make five yards, not two, which means more runs, which means a shorter game, which means less time for Jake Bentley and South Carolina to play offense. This UF defense has been hung out to dry by its offense — it’s no surprise the defense can’t hold the fort any longer. The strain of having to do everything is too great.
The offense needs to make early statements, and fourth downs often do that. Florida doesn’t even need a first-quarter touchdown drive to reshape the mindset of its defense. A seven-minute opening-drive field goal could recast the nature of this contest.
DRAIN THE SWAMP
This game isn’t in Gainesville, so there’s no Swamp involved. This isn’t American politics, either… but the idea of draining is the important thing to latch onto.
Florida needs to drain the play clock on live-clock plays. Any team which depends on tempo for its offense, or which has an advantage if the game lasts longer (as an extension of both the game clock and the number of plays run from scrimmage), wants to snap the ball as early on the play clock as possible.
Florida — for every possible reason across the spectrum — should have every interest in using 39 seconds on each live-clock play. Playing this game at a crawl will not only limit the amount of time Jake Bentley can sling the pigskin, it will also reduce wear and tear on the Florida roster and give players fewer total plays. If a bad team (that’s what the Gators are) plays fewer plays, that means fewer chances to make a mistake. Florida can’t sit on the ball for a whole half the way a college basketball team could before the shot clock arrived in November of 1985, but it can certainly extend each drive.
Completing first-down passes for short gains, then running twice or three times for subsequent first downs — with no clock stoppages — could greatly limit the ability of South Carolina’s offense to take the field and gain any rhythm when asked to perform. Florida should aim for a time of possession advantage of at least 38 minutes to 22 (plus-16).
GET OFF THE FIELD
The Florida defense is forced to stay on the field because the offense can’t control the ball very long (or well), but the defense has to play a more active role in shaping its outcomes. Missouri was 7 of 11 on third downs last week. That is plainly unacceptable and — for a defense — unsustainable. The dam will burst with that number, and it did in Columbia, Missouri. As the scene shifts to Columbia, South Carolina, the Gators have to be a lot better. Assuming the offense can’t possess the ball for a long time in the first 20 to 25 minutes on Saturday, the defense has to find ways to get off the field on third downs. If third downs involve five yards or fewer, quarterback draws with Bentley will be part of the South Carolina playbook. Florida has to make Bentley beat the Gators from the pocket, especially since Deebo Samuel cannot be part of the Gamecocks’ plan. Defensive linemen need to be very conscious of the need to put hands and arms in passing lanes. Knocking down a ball or two will enable Florida to get timely third-down stops so that it can manage the game and dictate tempo the way it wants to.