FORT LAUDERDALE, FL—The No. 24 Virginia Cavaliers defense has plans to make the No. 9 Florida Gators offense one dimensional.
It’s a common defensive concept that is simplistic on paper and typically effective on the field. Stop the run to force the pass and then push the offense into bad decisions. That’s the game plan according to Wahoo’s outside linebacker Charles Snowden.
“Making teams one dimensional is a big part of what we try to do,” Snowden told reporters on Thursday morning. He had just taken a seat at a table caddy corner from the one Gators running back Lamical Perine had vacated only moments before. Perine’s presence still loomed though as Snowden revealed the attention the Hoo’s plan on giving the senior back.
“Their running back is one of the best we’ve seen so we know he’s a great running back so we’re not going in and thinking just stop the pass, stop the pass. You still have to stop the run. The run always establishes the pass so definitely trying to stop that run first and then make them one dimensional and then we can kinda do what we do best.”
What they do best is blitz. The Cavs are 7th in the country in sacks with 45, just one shy of the Gators defense 46. While Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall might not be dialing up safety blitz’s straight up the middle á la Donovan Stiner, the blitzes are still sent as often as the Germans. At least, that’s how it appears on tape for Gators offensive lineman Nick Buchanan.
"They blitz, I think 90 percent of the time or something like that, so yeah, we've definitely been doing a lot of blitz pickup drills and stuff like that.”
“I mean he’s pretty close,” laughed Snowden.
“We do blitz pretty often so we kinda have that aggressive mindset so it’s high risk, high reward. Usually it pays off but not all the time.”
It’s the “not all the time” that the Gators have a great opportunity to take advantage of on Monday night. Because while the Cavs one dimensional plan is solid in theory, it is statistically ill-advised against this Florida offense because Dan Mullen’s squad has been one dimensional all season. More so, they’ve made it work.
With little to no running game this season, the Gators have taken to the air and found a home there. Florida is 17th in the country in passing offense overall and 10th amongst Power 5 teams. UF rushed 364 times during the regular season, while passing 428 times. However, the production on the ground led to only 27.6% of the Gators total 5,048 offensive yards thus far, of course leaving the other 72.4% to have been accumulated through the air.
Virginia’s defense has healed teams to an average of 358.2 yards per game. The Gators offense has averaged 420.7 yards per game this season.
While Feleipe Franks started the season and quarterback Kyle Trask has split reps with Emory Jones, it’s the starter Trask that Hoo's free safety Joey Blount has been impressed with while watching.
“His composure in the pocket. He is not very riled up. He stands strong in the pocket. Even when the pocket is closing around him, he'll stand on the reads, wait until the last minute and make the throw. Just his size and strength, honestly. He's a big guy at 6'5", 240 I'm pretty sure, and he just stands out.
“He has a quarterback body, and I like his arm strength and his decision making. It looks like he's reading the defense before the ball is snapped. For a guy who's never really been starting, I think he's done a really good job coming in for this program.”
The passers have been able to find success in the passing game thanks in large part to the tether on the other end of the cord. In total, 15 guys have hauled in a pass this season. That’s going to be the biggest issue explained Blount.
“Personally I like to look at the rocker steps and see what receiver is good on what type of downs, what type of routes does each receiver run. Every receiver is different in that type of way, there are quick receivers, deep threats, spot receivers, route receivers. So on down and distance it's huge because certain receivers want to get the ball on certain downs, make those type of plays.
"So for like the last week, week and a half, we've been studying down and distance, route concepts, what receiver is good on what routes, what are they best doing. You've got the tunnel screens and middle reads, under different routes they like to run, outside and inside receivers do a great job of getting the ball—Trask does a great job of getting the ball around to all the receivers, so that's actually what we're pinpointing, how we can read their concepts and just down and distance and just rely on the play calling for the defense.”
And that dynamic running back that Snowden mentioned? He’s become another tool in the passing game, taking 35 receptions consisting primarily of screens and outs to supplement the anemic run game. It’s Perine’s talent—whether it comes on the ground or through the air—that Snowden says will require a watchful eye.
“It definitely changes it because now we’re not necessarily—that’s another receiver you’ve got to account for. So if they’re pushing all their receivers vertical down the field, being able to stop the running back on a check down, where he might catch it for one yard but the closest defender is five or six yards away, so being able to rally, everybody getting to the ball. And now when you’re pass rushing, you have to be a little more cognizant of the check down ball, trying to knock it down, stuff like that, at the line of scrimmage.”
"Just a smart defense,” Perine said of his oppenant.
“Great inside linebackers. Just technique sound team, plays physical, just can’t, can’t come out and just take them for a joke cause they gonna surprise you.”
Whether the bigger surprise is the physicalness of Virginia or the realization for the Hoo’s that Florida has purposely made themselves one dimensional remains to be seen. But senior receiver Van Jefferson is prepared for the quest to find the answer.
“They're a physical defense. They've got a lot of athletic guys. We've just got to be sound in what we do and execute. Just be technically sound. I think they pose a great challenge for us, and we like challenges, so we've just got to play.”