The Florida Gators kept walking the high wire, kept dangling over the abyss, kept courting disaster.
They finally lost their footing and plunged into the misery of defeat.
It wasn't fun, but it was deserved. A team which has played a lot of mediocre football this season was finally forced to pay for it in an SEC game. The source was an unlikely one. LSU, bullied and outmaneuvered by Troy for three and a half quarters at home, got off the canvas and outplayed Florida -- albeit barely -- in The Swamp. The scoreboard margin could not have been smaller, but it seemed LSU carried the run of play for most of the game. Florida missed receiver Tyrie Cleveland, a deep threat who could have stretched the LSU secondary and, in turn, loosened up the structure of the Tigers' defense. Nevertheless, whereas a limited Florida team won in Baton Rouge a year ago, LSU was able to turn the tables in Gainesville despite below-average quarterback play and a very limited impact from Derrius Guice (71 total yards on 19 touches, 17 rushing and two pass receptions).
LSU's offense was hardly dynamic last weekend, but three newbies on the Tigers' offensive line figured to struggle against Florida's front seven. Instead, they did most of the shoving and moving in the second half. LSU didn't light up the scoreboard, but it did limit Florida to just three possessions after the Gators' second touchdown -- and final scoring drive of the day -- in the third quarter.
It is easy and logical to think of elite offenses as the units opposing teams need to keep off the field, but the plan can work just as well against a mediocre offense. Feleipe Franks needs all the repetitions he can get to cultivate better habits, gain experience in live action, and establish a better, more rhythmic rapport with his backs and receivers. When LSU controlled the ball in the second half and limited UF's number of possessions, Franks couldn't establish that rhythm.
This points the way to what Florida needs to do against Texas A&M.
1) TEST OF MANHOOD
While it is true that Texas A&M's eight-point loss to Alabama received way too much praise -- Alabama grabbed an early 21-point lead and was never seriously threatened; the eight-point margin was created by a garbage touchdown in the final half-minute of regulation -- the fact remains that the Aggies did not quit and did not get obliterated the way Vanderbilt and Ole Miss were against the Nick Saban Death Star.
Texas A&M might be getting better, or it might have put all its emotional eggs into that one Bama basket. Florida can't worry about that. It must expect A&M's best stuff and be ready to rise to the physical challenge at the line of scrimmage. Florida has too many offensive limitations to think it can win a game in which it is largely outplayed in the trenches. Breaking even probably won't be good enough. Florida might not win by a large margin on most judges' scorecards, but the Gators do need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, if only by one or two points. Everything else will become peripheral if Florida doesn't answer the call-up front. There's no sense in trying to make anything else the No. 1 key to this game for the Gators.
2) PUT THE BALL IN DIFFERENT PLAYERS' HANDS
When an offense is struggling and is missing key pieces, the first instinct is to think that an offense has fewer options. This is not wrong, but immediately sliding into that way of thinking can easily ignore or overlook the point that other, less proven players want to get their chance. Yes, they might not be as reliable as one would like, but the better coaching staffs find ways to incorporate inexperienced players into the schemes that are part of the game plan.
These newer, younger players don't need to memorize large numbers of plays, but on a handful of snaps, they can be given a chance to make meaningful contributions to the team and develop confidence. Moreover, their presence in a film reel gives future defensive coordinators more to account for.
UF offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier can't route this offense -- as it currently stands -- through a small number of players. Involving more members of the offense will make it harder for A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis to feel he can target specific formations or personnel groupings as plays that are indicative of various tendencies. A commitment to wide ball distribution can -- in its diversity -- make Florida's offense more of a moving target, something Chavis might not be able to pin down or accurately diagnose.
Part of the idea of getting the ball to various players is the specific idea of enabling them to attack the defense from various angles. Between-the-tackles handoffs, slant-ins, or quick-outs have their place, but jet sweeps, misdirection screens, and reverses offer the ability to constantly keep the LSU defense guessing. This is what Nussmeier needs to explore in his play selection against LSU. He could even consider using Malik Zaire just for a few snaps, merely to get LSU to think about its matchup there. If Zaire breaks from the Franks template enough to thwart A&M's plan, a small number of Zaire snaps could carry a large impact on the game.
3) LEVERAGE PLAYS
Jim McElwain punted on 4th and 1 from the Florida 24 last week against LSU. The move made perfect sense -- giving free points to LSU would have been a disaster in a low-scoring contest -- but in light of what has been said above, Florida's lack of offensive snaps in the second half robbed Franks and the rest of the offense of their rhythm.
McElwain will likely face a situation in which "the book" says to punt or play it safe. Mac will very likely need to choose the bold path over the logical one, going for it to not only show confidence in his offensive players, but to show the team that it is still committed to being aggressive. It's true that mistake avoidance (rather than the creation of huge positive plays) remains the main theme of this game, but Florida will have to make a few important plays. Players want to see their (UF) coach fight for this win with every last ounce of passion.
The offense needs to be ready to make tough plays, knowing that failure could carry a very large cost. Florida isn't yet good enough to think it can win a game without having to make one or two high-leverage plays. Picking the right times to be bold -- and using the right ways to justify the strategy -- must be nailed by McElwain against A&M.