The Florida Gators, and Gator faithful, got a chance to breathe during the bye week after an ugly 5-turnover loss to Miami in South Florida. However, the Gators get back to work Saturday as they start SEC play against Tennessee. Losing to the Hurricanes may have caused some early-season panic for fans, but Florida has a chance to put all that to rest by beating Tennessee for a 9th straight time on Saturday. Could the Vols pull off an upset? Let’s see what they’ll have in store for the Gators on Saturday.
Vol Offense: A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
Junior quarterback Justin Worley was the starter for the all three of Tennessee’s games, but he was relatively inconsistent in those weeks. In week 1 he completed 84% of his passes along with three touchdowns, giving him a raw QBR of 98.0. Raw QBR essentially evaluates a quarterback’s play without adjusting his play based off what he does vs the defense. In weeks 2 and 3 he dropped to 40.8 and 48.7, respectively.
Vol head coach Butch Jones said he wants to see Worley anticipate more under center saying, “I think a number of times what Justin has done is he has waited for the receiver to become open, then he’s throwing the football. Anticipatory skills from a quarterback, that’s what separates great quarterbacks,” said Jones. Quote via timesfreepress.com article
Jones said on Monday that he plans to reopen the quarterback competition, and on Wednesday he said he could make the decision as late as Saturday. This gives redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman a shot at the job. Peterman got clean up duty in Tennessee’s rout of Austin Peay, where he completed 4 of 8 passes for 28 yards. He only got 4 reps in last weeks’ game in Eugene, where he threw for 12 yards. Gator defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said Peterman has the ability to make plays with his feet. Other options at qb are true freshmen Josh Dobbs or Riley Ferguson. Dobbs is also a dual-threat qb who can run the read option for the Vols.
Whoever starts on Saturday in Gainesville has their work cut out for them—Florida’s “No Fly Zone” secondary ranks 12th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Additionally, Florida is 1st in the country in 3rd down conversion defense, allowing opponents to convert just 27.9% of the time. And let’s not forget about true freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who has two interceptions in two games, earning him a starting role on defense this week.
Tennessee’s run game is led by backs Rajon Neal and Martin Lane. Neal is averaging 6 yards per carry with 4 TDs in three games. Lane had solid numbers against Oregon’s stingy defense, rushing for 63 yards in 13 carries. While having a two-back offense is an advantage for any SEC team, Florida’s defense is tied for 4th in the country in rush defense, allowing just 50 yards in two games.
Let’s not forget about Tennessee’s offensive line. They returned all but one starter from last season, and they were the backbone to the second most productive offense in the SEC a year ago. The Vol offensive line and the Florida front is a formidable match up that makes the SEC a true line of scrimmage league.
If there’s something Florida’s defense can improve on, it’s causing turnovers. Florida is just at (2) in the turnovers gained margin, ranking in the bottom third of the FBS. Head coach Will Muschamp addressed this on Monday’s press conference saying,
“We got to create more turnovers defensively and create more momentum for our football team,” said Muschamp. Quote via onlygators.com article
Vol Defense: Laid to Rest in Eugene, Oregon Last Week
This headline is my attempt to be funny, but in reality Oregon’s offense is ridiculously explosive in every aspect. But on the other hand, shouldn’t an SEC defense do better than giving up 59 straight points along with 687 total yards? Talk about getting man handled. Look, I’m no defensive coordinator but Vol DC John Janeck has to be feeling the heat after last week’s shellacking. It wouldn’t hurt if Jeff Driskel took some notes from Ducks’ quarterback Marcus Mariota, either. Mariota threw for a career-high 456 yards along with four touchdowns against the Vols. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease could pull some ideas from the Ducks playbook too—Mariota has a similar skillset to Driskel in terms of his mobility within and out of the pocket.
Despite UT’s secondary being scorched by Mariota last week, the unit has done considerably well. So well in fact that they currently rank t-3rd in the nation for passes intercepted, with 7 picks over three games. Standout safety Brian Randolph leads the Vols with 2 interceptions, along with 9 solo tackles so far. To put the defense’s performance into further perspective, 4 different starters from the Vol defense have at least one INT. Even if they gave up 456 yards last week, that number is still impressive.
If Driskel wants to be productive on Saturday, it starts with turnovers. He had three of them against Miami, which included a fumble and two interceptions thrown in the red zone. Driskel told reporters on Monday that it doesn’t shake his confidence, however.
“No, not really at all,” Driskel said. “My coaches and my teammates have full confidence in me, and that’s all that really matters.” Quote via Associated Press
Despite the turnovers, Driskel had a good performance against the Canes statistically. He threw for a career-high 291 yards and completed 22 of 33 passes. Naturally, the key for Driskel this week is simple: ball security. The bye week surely should have helped him move past these mistakes, not to mention an extra week of developing more chemistry with receivers.
The Gator receiving corps is led by Quinton Dunbar, Trey Burton, and Solomon Patton. Dunbar had a big game against Miami, catching 7 passes for 98 yards. Patton is averaging 19.9 yards per catch and had a touchdown against the Hurricanes, while Burton has 133 yards on the season. If the receivers can get open on one-on-one match ups in the secondary, Driskel can have a big day opening up the air attack.
Running back Matt Jones struggled to get things going running up the middle in Miami. He only managed to get 47 yards and averaged just 2.7 per carry. Not to mention he fumbled in the first quarter. Give credit to Cane linebacker Denzel Perryman for putting a textbook helmet-to-ball tackle on the play, though (photo right). Mack Brown didn’t do much better, getting just 29 yards in 10 carries. Tennessee’s rush defense isn’t great, but then again it isn’t all bad either, giving up an average of 155 yards on the ground. Vol middle linebacker A.J. Johnson has been an absolute force on defense—in three games he has 17 tackles. If the run game doesn’t improve, once again the pressure will be on Driskel to give the offense a spark.
The last key for Florida’s offense is scoring in the red zone. The statistics are concerning: Florida’s ranked 122nd in red zone offense with just 6 scores in the red zone in 2 games. 122nd inside the zone makes it hard for any team to put points on the board. Against Miami, Florida found the end zone just twice. Pease addressed the lack of firepower Tuesday saying,
“We’ve moved the ball, and it’s come down to really this last game where, in the red zone, decisions, we turned the ball over. We had two bad decisions and really two bad calls on me. The quarterback sneak when we were down there, that’s on me. I shouldn’t have done it,” said Pease. Quote via OnlyGators Article
The Gators have a big opportunity to get back on the right track and calm the early season nerves among Florida fans. Keys to the game on offense include ball security and red zone efficiency, while defensively causing turnovers will be key to secure a W. Not to mention that win will mark 9 straight against Tennessee. Get amped Gator faithful, SEC play is here.
PS- Don’t we all miss seeing Vol fans in Gainesville?
Morgan Moriarty is a third year Telecommunications major at the University of Florida, and covers college football and recruiting for Florida Sports Talk Radio. She is also on the University of Florida Women’s Club Water Polo Team. Follow her on Twitter here @Morgan_Moriarty