Lost, perhaps, in all the discussion about whether 5-0 Florida (2-0 in the SEC) is worthy of its top ten billing is one minor little detail that actually says plenty about what the Gators have done so far. Florida has yet to play a game at full strength and the place that has had the greatest effect is on the defense. Yet here the Gators are, ranked 10th nationally and with a defense that ranks fifth in scoring defense (8.8 points per game), 16th in rushing defense (86.80 yards per game), 35th in pass defense (194.4 yards per game), 17th in total defense (281.2 yards per game), tied for second in sacks (24 for -136 yards) and tied for first in interceptions (nine).
The Gators have allowed only five touchdowns all season and haven't allowed a fourth quarter touchdown since the Miami game. That TD in the Miami game also marked the only time all season that an opponent has scored in the fourth quarter on UF.
Florida's defensive numbers are definitely impressive. Now imagine what the Gators might be able to do if everybody's healthy.
Barring an injury this week in practice or an unexpected suspension, the defense the Gators send out on the field Saturday when 7th-ranked Auburn (5-0, 2-0 SEC) comes to Gainesville will have a full contingent of movable and interchangeable parts for the first time all year. That is particularly good news since Auburn is coming off its best offensive game of the year – 361 passing yards, 217 rushing yards – against a Mississippi State defense that, prior to Saturday night, was thought to be pretty good.
“Once we get everybody back healthy I think we'll be pretty good,” says grad transfer Jonathan Greenard, who has assumed the mantle of heart and soul of the defensive unit. Once we get everybody back on and get the chemistry back on and play like we were playing back in camp we'll be really good.”
Getting edge rusher Jabari Zuniga and shutdown corner CJ Henderson back for the Auburn game will go a long way toward getting the chemistry back to where it was during Florida's preseason camp. In their absence, Greenard has taken over as the unparalleled leader of the defense. His season stats show four sacks, four quarterback hurries, three passes batted down, a forced fumble and an interception. He's been doubled and tripled up on every play but that will certainly change with Zuniga's return.
Henderson, who has been out with a severely sprained ankle since the Gators whacked Tennessee-Martin in game two, will benefit from a healthy Florida pass rush. He's likely to draw the assignment of neutralizing Auburn's Seth Williams, who has 17 catches for 289 yards and four touchdowns so far. Williams torched Mississippi State for eight catches, 161 yards and two touchdowns. Henderson has yet to give up a touchdown pass in his Florida career.
It will be imperative for the Gators to stuff Auburn's running game (Tigers average 251 yards per game and 5.3 per carry) and put the game on true freshman quarterback Bo Nix. Although Nix is coming off his best game of the season – 16-21 for 335 yards and two touchdowns against Mississippi State – he averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt against Oregon, 5.6 against Tulane and 5.0 against Texas A&M. It's also important that the Gators show discipline in their pass rush to keep Nix in the pocket. He has run for 173 yards and two touchdowns this season, averaging 4.94 per carry, so he's got the ability escape and extend plays. If the Tigers are able to establish the running game early, it will give Nix run/pass options and the ability to throw off play action.
While Auburn's defense has been exceptionally good against the run, the Tigers have shown some vulnerability in the passing game where opponents are averaging 225 yards per game. The Auburn secondary has allowed seven touchdowns and has just one interception. The Tigers have 13 sacks on the season, 10 in the last three games.
Florida's strength on offense is its wide receivers and this will easily be the best unit the Tigers have faced all season. If the Gators can give Kyle Trask time to throw the football, they will be able to score points. If they can get anything out of the running game, it will force Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to take people out of coverage to play the run.
The pundits will be talking all week about Auburn's tough defense, but Florida's defense, particularly with everybody healthy, might be more than equal to the task. If the defense shows and the Gators can give Trask enough time to make good throws, this is a game the Gators can win.
SOME GOOD THINGS FROM THE TOWSON WIN
In only his second game as the starting quarterback, Kyle Trask completed 18-20 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns and set the UF school record for 18 consecutive completions (the last three from the Tennessee game, first 15 vs. Towson). His only bad throw of the game was in the third quarter when he made a throw under duress when Towson brought the house on a blitz. Trask probably could have unloaded that throw out into the right flat where Kyle Pitts was open. Trask spread the ball around to seven different receivers and did a good job of getting the ball to the open man instead of trying to force the ball downfield.
Dameon Pierce broke off runs of 31 and 37 yards, finishing the day with 84 yards on six carries. On the 31-yarder, Pierce started right, but made a sharp cutback left where he found open space. Without question that's the best play a Florida running back has had all year in reading what's going on in front of him then reacting. Pierce scored on the 37-yarder when he found the edge on the left side and accelerated down the West sideline, leaving several Towson defenders in his wake. Pierce wasn't targeted for any passes but did show up well in pass protection. He showed in this game that he is Florida's best combination of both speed and power and should get more of the load in the running game.
Pitts continues to be the X factor in the Florida passing game. He's too fast for linebackers and too big and strong for corners and safeties to cover. Against Towson he had four catches for 28 yards and two touchdowns, both scores coming on throws in red zone where his size and strength make it next to impossible to jam him.
Greenard was in on five tackles, picked up half a sack, three quarterback hurries and got his first interception as a Gator when he gathered in a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage by Tedarrell Slaton.
Towson had 61 rushing yards at halftime but finished the game with only 65.
SOME NOT SO GOOD THINGS
The Gators gave up three sacks for -21 yards in losses. The first sack was over right guard Chris Bleich. Bleich did atone for his error by falling on the football when Trask fumbled after he was hit, but Trask should have never been hit in the first place. The second was near the end of the first half when Stone Forsythe got beat on the outside and Nick Buchanan didn't pick up the defensive tackle when he got inside on Brett Heggie. The third was on Trask who held the ball too long even though he had Pitts open in the left flat.
For the second straight week Trask had a fumble when his pass protection broke down. Auburn will present a fierce pass rush so Trask has got to do a better job of ball security this week.
The Gators allowed 8-15 on third down conversions, 5-8 in the first half.
Towson quarterback Tom Flacco picked up 22 yards up the gut on the Tigers' first offensive play of the game. Later on that same drive he converted third downs with runs of nine and 11 yards.
In the first half, the Tigers found success throwing the ball in the middle of the field to the tight ends and on a couple of quick slants.
There were too many missed tackles (at least seven) at or near the line of scrimmage when the Tigers were able to get positive yardage after the initial contact.
Florida's run blocking is way too inconsistent. Maybe it's because Mullen understands the strength of the team is the passing game so the Gators spend far more of their time in pass protection drills in practice than run blocking. The Gators have to get to a point where they have the option to run the football successfully on third and four or fewer yards.
Yes, it was Towson and a game that most people found dull and uninteresting but attendance was 79,126. Most of the gaps in the unseated areas of the stadium were on the student side but there are plenty of other empty spaces that should be occupied by season ticket holders. If the Gators intend to get the football program back to a championship level, then The Swamp has to become the most intimidating place to play in college football once again.