By FRANZ BEARD
GatorBait Senior Columnist
It was third-and-eight at the Florida 36, Auburn trailing the Gators, 17-13, a situation not all that dissimilar to the one the Tigers faced in the season opener against Oregon. In that one, Bo Nix went into a rally coma in the fourth quarter and transformed himself into a living legend. All the missed throws and blown opportunities of the first three quarters when he looked every bit the true freshman that he was were exiled to a black hole in his brain, never to be remembered again, as he led Auburn from down, 21-6, to a 21-7 win.
Five games later, there was Nix with another opportunity to cement his living legend status, this time in the same place his dad Patrick Nix became an Auburn legend in 1994 when he led the Tigers to a 38-35 win over Steve Spurrier and the #1-ranked Gators.
Through three quarters and with few exceptions against Florida last Saturday, Nix looked the part of the dazed and confused freshman just like he did for three quarters against Oregon. But there he was in the fourth quarter, just 36 yards away from glory and a chance to make the Auburn nation forget about all the incompletions and interceptions. All he needed was a simple eight-yard completion to extend the drive. As he looked over the Florida defense he must have been feeling as if this was exactly what he was born to do. His dad, after all, threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Frank Sanders with 30 seconds left in this same stadium in 1994 to win that game. Was lightning of the family variety about to strike twice in the same place 25 years apart? Oh, how sweet this would be.
There was just this one teensy problem, however, and that was the guy on the other sideline who, with the exception of a couple of blown plays, spent the afternoon a couple of steps ahead of the Auburn offense. In this cat-and-mouse game between Auburn coach/playcaller Gus Malzahn and Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, it seemed Grantham had the big-play antidote and knew exactly what he had to do to frustrate a legend in waiting.
When Nix surveyed the Florida defense on third-and-eight, he saw a look not all that different than the one he saw in the second quarter when he threw a 32-yard touchdown pass, Auburn's only TD of the game. When Nix got the snap he immediately looked where he thought the open receiver would be, but Florida had it sniffed out.
Panic! And by this time, the pass rush was caving in the pocket. Nix went into his escape mode with a spin move but before he could do a full 360 another Gator was closing in. He should have gone down and protected the football but he made another freshman mistake. Another spin move produced yet another Gator closing in. No matter how willing Nix's mind was to escape the pressure, his feet wouldn't cooperate. He went down in a heap without any contact.
Third-and-eight was now fourth and 30. Instead of the Florida 36, the ball was at the Auburn 42. On the Auburn sideline, Gus Malzahn looked as if Dracula had drained all the blood in his body. Over on the other sideline, Florida's defensive genius in residence was celebrating. One punt later, the same Lamical Perine that Auburn didn't recruit because they thought he was too slow, put the finishing touches on a signature Florida win with an 88-yard touchdown run in which a bunch of very fast Tigers chased but couldn't make up any ground.
The touchdown was the direct result of Todd Grantham showing once again why he's one of the highest paid defensive coordinators in the country.
“That was really a coverage sack” Grantham explained on Monday. “If you go back and look it was really the coverage and the look. He kind of locked on a certain side and we kind of took that away and there was nowhere to throw the ball and guys kept coming.”
The Auburn game was textbook Grantham. When the Tigers expected blitz, Grantham rushed three. When they expected three, he rushed four. Out of the same look, Grantham went totally vanilla on one snap, exotic on the next. Five times when Auburn needed short yardage for a first down to extend a drive the defense swarmed and stopped the Tigers cold in their tracks. Auburn came into the game averaging 38 points and 454.4 yards per game, 251 on the ground. The Gators held them to 269 and only 124 in the run game. Florida picked off three Nix passes and held the Tigers to a single second quarter touchdown. This was the fifth straight team the Gators have held a team without a touchdown in the 4th quarter.
The Grantham football pedigree stretches back to Virginia Tech where he played and coached for the legendary Frank Beamer. He spent three years working for Nick Saban at Michigan State, serving as assistant head coach in year three. Then came three years when he worked for Jim Mora Sr. as the defensive line coach of the Indianapolis Colts. The seeds of a well-disguised defense took root during that time as he watched Peyton Manning struggle with three-man defensive fronts that brought a fourth rusher – not always the same one – from different places.
“I was with Peyton Manning for three years and he couldn't beat the [New England] Patriots for a long time,” Grantham said. “I would sit there in practice and watch and he could never figure where the fourth rusher was coming from. It really bothered him. We played four-down teams he'd start dialing it up and could tell the scout team you're wrong, you should be here and you should be there. He knew pre-snap where to go to the ball. Once I saw that I pretty much knew what to do.”
The base defense Grantham uses with the Gators has evolved from those days with the Colts. He prefers a three-man front but will go four-down depending on the situation, the personnel package he has to work with and who he's trying to defend. He prefers pressuring with three or four but isn't afraid to bring the house when it's to his advantage. He likes playing games with the collective minds of opposing quarterbacks and defensive coordinators by manipulating his personnel and the look they're showing.
“Any time you can you get pressure with four guys but you try to mix it up,” he said. “I don't think you can be one-dimensional in anything because that allows guys to understand what you are doing. Any time you can just make it uneasy on those guys throwing the ball I think that's good.”
If he were a car salesman, you'd have to say Todd Grantham has mastered bait-and-switch – show one thing and then deliver something else. With a roster like the one he has this year at Florida, Grantham can play the role of the master manipulator and the stats bear that out. The Gators are third nationally in sacks (26) and they lead the nation in interceptions (12).
With stud edge rushers like Jonathan Greenard, Jeremiah Moon and Jabari Zuniga bringing the heat it helps the secondary and when the guys in the secondary like CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson lock down receivers, it makes the job of the pass rushers easier.
“We've got some good guys in the back end that are creating tight coverage,” Grantham said. “A lot of times guys won't throw the ball when there's tight coverage. They'll hold it.”
Of course, when they hold it, they become more susceptible to the pass rush. Even against good offensive lines like the one the Gators faced against Auburn, there is only so much time before breakdowns occur. Just ask Bo Nix.
Until the Perine touchdown, the Gators had very little breathing room against Auburn, largely because turnovers kept the game close. Take away the four Florida fumbles and the Gators turn white knuckles into a yawner that would have sent half the 94,584 at The Swamp to the exits early. Two of the three first half fumbles cost the Gators field goals. A botched punt led to a blown assignment in the secondary and a second quarter Auburn touchdown.
In Grantham's way of thinking, the field goals were a plus for his defense.
“How many points can you take off the field?” Grantham asked. “If you can hold them a minimum of a field goal, if our offense goes down twice and scores touchdowns they get 14 and we hold them to field goals that's six, it's 14-6.”
On two of the turnovers – a second quarter fumble and one in the fourth quarter – the Gators did better than holding to a field goal. Shawn Davis came away with a one-handed pick on the sidelines to not only erase seven potential Auburn points but set up Florida's second touchdown of the game for a 14-6 lead. After the fourth quarter fumble, Donovan Stiner picked off Nix in the end zone to erase seven more potential points by the Tigers.
On both those interceptions, Grantham baited Nix with a coverage look that showed one thing but disguised the real intent. But whether it was holding the Tigers to field goals or coming up with the big turnover at an opportune moment, it was simply a matter of the Gators doing what they're trained to do and getting the job done.
“We always say go put the fire out,” Grantham said. “That's part of our don't flinch [philosophy]. Whatever situation comes up, don't flinch. Whatever situation you're dealt with go make a play and go handle the situation. We talk about go put the fire out. Guys have embraced that and have accepted the challenge on that.”
The challenge for Grantham and the defensive staff this week is to stifle LSU's high scoring offense, led by quarterback Joe Burrow, who has thrown for 22 touchdowns. The Tigers are the best offensive team the Gators have faced all season, but the flip side of that is the Gators have the best defense LSU has seen. Grantham will do his usual smoke and mirrors to try to daze and confuse Burrow but the Gators will take the field understanding they have to abide by the following tenets: (1) Whatever you give up, make sure the other guys have to earn it; (2) don't miss tackles; and (3) keep things in front of you so you don't give up explosive plays.
“I always talk about making them earn it and make them go the long hard way,” Grantham said. “If you do that and don't give up explosive plays you're going to be hard to score on and that's kind of what's happened this year.”