Florida's D needs help from the offense

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
9:30
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If Florida is going to make a run to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, its offense has to take some of the stress off of the defense.

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader via Getty ImagesRunning back Matt Jones is the latest Gators offensive player to be lost for the season.
Plain and simple.

This team survived the 2012 season with a very slim margin for error by having a fantastic defense, great in-game adjustments and good old-fashioned luck.

Florida coach Will Muschamp knew his team couldn't survive another season like that, but as the No. 22-ranked Gators (4-2, 3-1 SEC) prepare for a trip west to face the red-hot 14th-ranked Missouri Tigers (6-0, 2-0 SEC), he's seeing many of the same things that plagued the Gators last season.

Florida still has an elite defense (ranked third nationally, allowing just 235.3 yards per game), but it hasn't had much good fortune, and this team has two losses before Halloween. Yes, injuries -- especially on offense -- have hurt, but when the defense needed help in those eventual losses, the offense failed.

The Gators have more of a passing game this season, but offensive consistency is still an issue. In the 21-16 loss to Miami, Florida had a season-high 291 passing yards, but turned the ball over five times, including three times in the red zone. In last week's loss to LSU, Florida managed just 240 yards of offense with a season-low 3.5 yards per play, and the run game averaged 2.8 yards per carry for the third time this season.

However, Muschamp has been quick to criticize his defense. It isn't perfect and it has shown weaknesses. LSU rushed for 175 yards (121 coming from Jeremy Hill) and both the Tigers and Canes hit Florida's secondary with big plays. The Gators clearly miss defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who is out for the season with an ACL injury, and the secondary does have a knack for having eye control issues.

"We just need to play well defensively," Muschamp said. "Our defense doesn't need to worry about [what] our offense does.

"Our defense needs to worry about what our defense needs to do."

Still, only Miami has scored 20 or more points on the Gators this season. Even LSU's high-flying offense managed just 17 points, while becoming the only team to gain more than 275 yards on the Gators (who had 327). Florida leads the SEC with 13 straight conference games in which it did not allow more than 20 points.

New quarterback Tyler Murphy was efficient in two-plus games, but buckled against LSU's pressure. The Tigers had no problem going right at Murphy and stacking the box to stop the run. It was just one game, but teams won't have a reason to fear Florida's offense if pressure weakens it.

Florida is 13th in the SEC in scoring (21.8 points per game) and has hit 30 points just twice this season. On the road, it has yet to score more than 24 points.

Maybe Murphy needs more freedom throwing downfield in order to open up the running game. He had been efficient before the LSU game, but registered a QBR of 20 in Baton Rouge. Eleven of his 15 completions went for less than 10 yards. Florida's longest play came on a 20-yard pass to Demarcus Robinson, and the running game recorded a season-low 111 yards and had a long play of 14 yards.

Give LSU's defense credit -- its constant pressure overwhelmed the Gators. But the lack of big runs didn’t help.

"We have to create some more explosive runs," Muschamp said. "That’s been the biggest issue to me in the run game this season."

On the other hand, the defense ranks first in the SEC in passing, rushing and total defense, while the offense ranks 11th or worse in scoring, passing, rushing and total offense. The issue now is that the opposing offenses are only going to get better with Mizzou (515.7 yards per game), Georgia (517.3) and South Carolina (486.5) as three of the next four opponents. Then Florida State, which ranks fourth nationally in total offense (549), travels to Gainesville for the season finale.

The defense has to be champing at the bit to face these high-powered offenses, but can it survive if the offense isn't getting into the end zone?

Now the Gators will have to do it without running back Matt Jones, who is out for the season with a torn meniscus. That creates even more pressure on this offense . . . or is it on the defense?

Not having elite offensive talent certainly doesn't help Florida, but good teams find ways to adjust. Play-calling changes. Personnel groupings change. Florida's offense wasn't pretty last season, but it found ways to grind games out during an 11-win season. The defense can do only so much, which means the second half of the 2013 season is up to the offense.

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