SEC: Toledo Rockets

Video: No. 24 Missouri 49, Toledo 24

September, 6, 2014
Sep 6
4:32
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Maty Mauk threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns in No. 24 Missouri’s 49-24 victory over Toledo.


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Throughout the offseason, Florida knew its program depth would be tested.

The Gators lost seven starters from last year's defense and knew Week 1 would mean a match up against a veteran Toledo offense that averaged more than 445 yards of total offense in 2012.

In fall camp Florida lost three starters on offense to injury. And Saturday saw five players suspended, including two starters on defense.

Throw in a head coach who believes in playing his best freshmen, and there were so many new faces on Florida Field it's a wonder there were any game programs left unsold.

"We're taught by our coaches, especially [head coach Will] Muschamp, when there's a man down to man up," linebacker Neiron Ball said. "If there's a man down, the next player's got to be ready."

Muschamp, who expects this year's defense to be just as good as last year despite all the new starters, is standing by the motto. He expects injuries and he doles out discipline knowing he can weather a suspension to an important player.

"We're not going to make excuses at Florida, regardless of injury, sickness, whatever the situation may be," he said. "We're just going to move forward. That's why you have a deep roster and that's why you recruit guys who don't ask you about the depth chart 400 times. You recruit guys who want to come in here and compete.

"A lot of young guys, they were a little big-eyed walking out of the locker room. But [it was good] for them to get that experience. I think we played 15 freshmen, eight or nine true and then seven redshirt guys. So that's good to get those young guys playing. The way it is in college football now, you've got a bunch of guys coming out early, you might as well play the [young] guys."

Leading the way, however, was running back Mack Brown. Not a new face, but maybe an anonymous one. Brown has toiled in orange and blue for more than three years, amassing just 40 career carries, despite once having four-star recruiting status. Still, Muschamp said he wasn't at all surprised at Brown's performance.

The redshirt junior was Florida's workhorse on Saturday, rushing for 25 times for 112 mostly tough yards and two first-half touchdowns. He drew the starting assignment because sophomore Matt Jones is still recovering from a viral infection.

Brown's reaction to possibly losing the starting nod next week against the in-state rival Miami Hurricanes?

"You know what, we need [Jones] back, man," Brown said. "We've got about four to five backs. You need a lot of backs in a season. Can't wait to see Matt Jones back. Really can't wait to see him."

Sharing the starting backfield duties with Brown on Saturday was fullback Gideon Ajagbe, another forgotten redshirt junior who credits an offseason switch from linebacker with providing his first chance at playing time. He cashed in with his first career touchdown, a wide-open 4-yard pass from Jeff Driskel.

To hear Ajagbe tell it, he was simply the next man up, as Florida limited the playing time of incumbent starter Hunter Joyer, who is dealing with a pulled hamstring.

"It was fun. It was cool," Ajagbe said of the pregame locker-room scene where so many new players were slated for more prominent roles. "I know everybody was jacked up for it."

When the players line up to come out of the tunnel during Florida's pregame introductions, the starters get to lead the way. Of all the new faces at the front of the line, Brown might have been the most emotional.

"You lose a lot of confidence over the years, not playing," he said. "The last time I started was my senior year of high school.

"I had tears in my eyes. I felt like I was useless the last couple of years."

Not Saturday. With a man down, Jones and other Gators manned up.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After suspending five players, including two starters on defense, the No. 10 Gators were forced to use their depth against Toledo on Saturday. Several backup players came through, as Florida showed off an improved offense to go with its usually stingy defense in a 24-6 victory.

Florida has won 24 consecutive season openers, the second-longest streak in the nation.

It was over when: Florida freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, ESPN's No. 3-ranked prospect overall in the Class of 2013, stepped in front of a third-quarter Terrance Owens pass and returned the interception to the Toledo 23-yard line, which set up the Gators' offense for its third touchdown drive and a 24-6 lead.

Game ball goes to: Florida junior running back Mack Brown might be the understudy to sophomore Matt Jones, who was out with a viral infection, but he carried the Gators' offense all day. Brown paced Florida in the first half with 97 yards on 17 carries with two touchdowns. He finished with 112 yards on 25 carries.

Stat of the game: It might be unfair to highlight time of possession when Toledo runs an uptempo offense that likes to get up and down the field quickly, but with a 39:48-to-20:12 advantage on the time clock, Florida was able to control the game from start to finish. The Gators took advantage of a big mismatch coming into this game -- Florida's grinding running attack against Toledo's suspect young defense up the middle.

What the Gators learned: Gainesville, you have an offense. The passing game might still lack a downfield threat, and the statistics don't show dominance, but there were far fewer miscues, far more open receivers and overall more creativity than at any point in the past few seasons. The Gators will still be an offense that is defined by downhill running, but with its variety of plays and role players, Florida can move the ball in more ways than before.

What the Rockets learned: Playing an SEC opponent for the first time in program history, Toledo got a taste of an SEC atmosphere with a vocal fan base on a very hot Southern day. The Rockets' uptempo offense put pressure on Florida and was at times effective in the heat, but Toledo's inability to turn scoring drives into touchdowns cost it any chance of staying in the game.

Video: Florida vs. Toledo pregame

August, 31, 2013
8/31/13
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Jeff Barlis previews the matchup between No. 10 Florida and Toledo.

Greetings from the Swamp

August, 31, 2013
8/31/13
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Season openers are usually met with tremendous enthusiasm. It's the day fans have waited months for.

As the No. 10 Gators are set to host Toledo, however, some of that excitement has been tempered by a slew of suspensions that will cost UF two defensive starters and a handful of depth players.

The Gators lost seven starters from a 2012 defense that ranked among the top five in the nation in total defense. Add the suspensions of starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison (after two offseason arrests) and starting cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy (for an undisclosed violation of team rules), and Florida will have nine new starters on defense against an up-tempo, senior-laden Rockets offense.

The other suspensions are to defensive tackle Darious Cummings, wide receiver Latroy Pittman, and offensive lineman Quinteze Williams.

Another damper? The weather.

One of the iconic signs painted on the corners of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium says "This is The Swamp". Today that could be taken literally. It's very hot, very humid, and the forecast calls for scattered showers.

While the weather could dash Florida's hopes of showing off an improved passing game, a bigger issue is the running game, where in the Gators will be without starting tailback Matt Jones (viral infection) and two starting offensive linemen -- Jon Halapio (out for the first two games with a partially torn pectoral muscle) and Chaz Green (out for the season with a torn labrum).

Depth will key if the Gators are to add to their streak of 23 straight wins in season openers, the second-longest run in the country.

Five questions: Florida-Toledo

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
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On Saturday, No. 10 Florida will host a Toledo team that went went 9-4 last season and knows how to move the ball at a fast pace.

The Gators are looking to prove that last year's 11-win season wasn't a fluke, but they'll start the year with a beat-up offense, as key players like running back Matt Jones and offensive linemen Chaz Green and Jon Halapio are out.

The defense will be down top linebacker Antonio Morrison, who is out due to suspension, and will have some younger blood on the field Saturday.

Here are five things to watch in the Gators season opener against the Rockets:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Kevin Liles/US PRESSWIREAs usual, the biggest question mark for Florida's offense is centered on Jeff Driskel and the passing game.
1. Life in the passing lane? There's no denying that the biggest question resides in Florida's passing game. The Gators were last in the SEC in passing (146.3 yards per game) last season, and no one outside of Florida's football facility really knows what to expect from this unit again. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is a year older, maturing and more confident, but just how comfortable is he with his receivers? Who will be the guy(s) out wide? Well, Quinton Dunbar could be the best deep-play option to start the year, and it sounds like he's been more consistent in practice. Solomon Patton will be used more all over the field and has the speed to break off a few big plays. And Trey Burton proved to be a consistent weapon during fall camp. Keep an eye on freshman Demarcus Robinson, who has the talent to be a special player this year. Regardless, if this passing game wants to generate some confidence, Saturday would be a good time to start.

2. Return of the Mack: Coming out of high school, Mack Brown was considered one of the South's top running backs. But the redshirt junior has just 167 career yards and no touchdown on 40 carries. Brown has a chance to get half as many as his career carries on Saturday when he makes his first start at running back. With Jones out, Brown is now the center of Florida's running back stable. He's had an issue with fumbles in the past, but appeared to clean that up this fall. He's a tough runner, who has the ability to break a few. Last year, the Rockets ranked 82nd nationally in run defense (182.3).

3. Stopping the uptempo offense: This will be Toledo's first game ever against an SEC opponent. That means the Rockets will get a taste of what it's like to play what should yet again be one of the nation's top defensive units. But Toledo will have that exhausting uptempo offense on its side. The Gators did well against the uptempo last year, but right out of the gate, it's bothersome. Just look at how tired South Carolina's defense looked Thursday night against North Carolina. The Gators are working in some new parts on defense, and we all know how jacked up players get for openers. Toledo's trio of quarterback Terrence Owens, running back David Fluellen and receiver Bernard Reedy return a combined 6,033 offensive yards and 38 touchdowns from 2012 and will try to wear this defense down. One way to stop the uptempo is to disrupt things up front, where the Gators have harped on generating more pressure this year.

4. Safety zone: The Gators are replacing two starters -- Matt Elam and Josh Evans -- at safety. Heading into preseason camp, coach Will Muschamp wasn't exactly thrilled with the play at the position. But that changed with the emergence of veteran Cody Riggs, who moved to safety after spending most of his football career at cornerback. Riggs has really embraced his new role and will play both safety spots on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Marcus Maye will start alongside Riggs. Maye flew around the field during fall camp to earn his starting spot, but this will be the first action Maye sees in a Gators uniform. Riggs has tons of experience and started playing safety before his season-ending foot injury early last year. Maye will have some wide eyes Saturday, so expect Toledo to try and test him early.

5. Place-kicker: With record-setting kicker Caleb Strugis gone, the Gators have major questions at place-kicker. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin beat out senior Brad Phillips this fall and will see his first collegiate action Saturday. This is the first of many tests for Hardin. With the offense still a relative unknown, Hardin's foot could be called upon a lot this year. That's a lot of pressure to put on a young kicker. Getting some of those nerves out of the way on Saturday will go a long way.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida’s current situation at running back is nothing that anyone -- not even coach Will Muschamp -- would have ever imagined.

As the Gators begin preparations today for the Aug. 31 season opener against Toledo, the depth chart looks like this:

Projected starter Matt Jones has yet to practice because of a viral infection.

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
UF CommunicationsMatt Jones had an outstanding spring, but has yet to practice this fall.
The player who has been working with the first team is redshirt junior Mack Brown, who has just 40 career carries after signing with UF in 2010 as the nation’s No. 4 running back.

The next player in line is sophomore Mark Herndon, a former walk-on special teams player who was awarded a scholarship on Tuesday.

Behind Herndon is redshirt sophomore Valdez Showers, who was a safety until last week.

Then you finally find Kelvin Taylor, the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit and the son of former UF standout Fred Taylor, and fellow freshman Adam Lane.

It’s that last part that’s the most surprising considering there was some thought that Taylor, who enrolled in January, was going to beat out Jones for the starting job during the spring. Instead, he and Lane will get just scraps of playing time because they have yet to prove their reliability.

"No. 1 is ball security," Muschamp said. "You’ve got to take care of the football. That’s the number one thing. They’re very talented runners [but] so much more goes into it other than just running the football. … We like to make sure the quarterback is protected.

"They’ve got to take a step. Very pleased with both guys. They’re going to help us this year. How much, their role, will depend on how they continue to develop. It’s a long season."

Obviously the Gators want the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones back as soon as possible. He underwent blood work on Monday and was out on the practice field for 10-15 minutes on Tuesday but still has not been cleared to practice. Muschamp said UF is preparing to play the Rockets without Jones, who had a fantastic spring and was named a preseason All-SEC third-team selection.

"All I know is he is progressing very well," said Muschamp, who is scheduled to meet with the media on Friday and provide another update. "I get a daily update. He feels good. He’s doing more and more every day from a workout standpoint, and that’s all I know. We’re playing it by ear and every day we have a staff meeting, we have an injury report and he [the trainer] gives me an update."

Brown has been a disappointment since he signed, mainly because he was hobbled by a hamstring injury and a broken ankle. His biggest contribution came in last season’s game against Texas A&M when he carried the ball four times for 11 yards to help the Gators run out the final 3:13 and preserve a 20-17 victory.

Herndon is the surprise considering he has played in just six games (all last season) on special teams. He ran for 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns as a high school senior and Muschamp mentioned him as a standout in the spring, but to be the No. 2 back heading into the season opener is not something for which Muschamp would have hoped.

"Coach Muschamp always talks about ‘man down, man up’ and I just felt like it was an opportunity," Herndon said. "It (Jones’ viral infection) was really unfortunate. Me and Matt are teammates, so we talk and hang out. I was sad, but if he’s down, I’ve got to step up because the team needs me.

"That’s what I did. I tried to push Mack Brown. He’s the No. 1, so I tried to push him and keep him on his toes. I didn’t want anybody slacking."

Showers fell behind junior Jabari Gorman and redshirt freshman Marcus Maye in the battle for playing time at safety and was moved to running back last week. It’s not unfamiliar territory because he was a running back and cornerback at Detroit Madison, where he rushed for 3,596 yards and 49 touchdowns in his final two seasons.

Showers was heavily involved with the first-team offense, especially in the passing game, during UF’s open practices and Muschamp said the move is permanent.

"He's got great top-end speed. He's got really good ball skills," Muschamp said. "He can do a lot of different things for us as far as lining up at receiver, lining up in the backfield. A tough guy to account for a defensive coordinator. Been very pleased with what he's added for us offensively."

Muschamp will be more pleased when Jones returns. If that doesn’t happen within the next day or so, it might be too late for Jones to be prepared to play against Toledo. His season debut might then have to come against Miami on Sept. 7.

"Any time you have something like this and you’re in uncharted waters and you’re uncertain of it, you always plan without the player," Muschamp said. "If the player’s there, it’s great. That’s gravy for everybody."

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