Defense relishes the pressure of carrying Gators to another win
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida was clinging to a 14-7 lead late in the fourth quarter, and Missouri was driving for the potential game-tying touchdown.
Yet Gators defensive tackle Omar Hunter couldn't have been happier.
Hunter and the rest of UF's defense want to be in that situation. They want the pressure. They want the outcome to be dependent on somebody on defense making a play.
That's what happened on Saturday. Josh Evans intercepted James Franklin's fourth-down pass with five seconds remaining to seal the Gators' victory in front of a less-than-packed Florida Field. That was UF's fourth interception and it ensured the Gators would not only beat the Tigers but also remain alive in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division race -- and keep their slim national championship hopes alive, as well.
What happened isn't anything new, though. Florida's defense has covered all season for an offense that struggles to move the ball and makes few plays in the passing game because of an inconsistent offensive line and a lack of playmakers at receiver. The offense isn't going to get any better, so the defense will have to continue to carry the team, especially if they are going to beat Florida State, somehow sneak into the SEC Championship Game and/or reach a BCS bowl.
"I'm a realist and I believe in being honest and calling it the way it is," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "When it stinks, it stinks, and I think if we go back to last year and you pull your tape recorders out I probably said it a couple of times.
"After our first game of the year I kind of made a statement that it's kind of who we are right now. And as we move forward we're going to continue to improve offensively and we're going to become explosive and more of what we want to be, but we're doing what we have to do to win football games."
Against Missouri (4-5, 1-5), Florida's defense did what it usually does: clamp down in the second half. The Gators held the Tigers to 35 yards rushing, intercepted Franklin three times, blocked a field goal and didn't give up a point despite Missouri ending six consecutive drives in Florida territory.
"That's who we are," Muschamp said. "Doing what we've got to do to win the game. Our guys don't panic. Our guys play the game. Our guys don't get flustered, regardless of what ya'll may write. They just play the game. They do what they're supposed to do. They play within the scheme and within the system for the most part and they play for each other and they have a very strong bond within the locker room."
No. 7 Florida (8-1, 7-1 SEC) did it despite not having its best pass rusher. Buck LB Lerentee McCray missed the game with an ankle injury, but true freshman DEs Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard made up for his absence by combining for eight tackles and 2.5 sacks. On the game's last drive, S Matt Elam wasn't on the field, either, because of a strained groin, but sophomore Jabari Gorman took his place and held his own.
Regardless of who is on the field, the defense seems to always respond. Even in the Gators' only loss, the defense kept the game within reach by forcing three turnovers. The offense turned the ball over five times against Georgia but still was driving for the potential game-tying score in the final two minutes before TE Jordan Reed committed No. 6.
Time and time again, the defense has been able to rescue the Gators. Halftime deficits, turnovers deep in UF territory, big-time offensive playmakers have all been overcome. There likely won't be many challenges in the next two weeks against Louisiana-Lafayette and Jacksonville State, but there certainly will be in the regular-season finale against Florida State and possibly the SEC title game (should Georgia lose to Auburn).
"In all my years as defensive coordinator, regardless of the circumstances, our job is to make stops," Muschamp said. "I always tell them, 'You're the firemen. Go put the fire out. I don't care how bad it's blazing. Go put it out.' And regardless of the situations and circumstances, when you walk on the field your job is to stop them.
"That's something that's not talked about during the week of games. We talk about that in January. And that's an attitude. It's an opportunity for greatness, is the way I look at it. It's an opportunity for greatness. You go out and make a stop on the goal line. You want to be great? Be put in those situations and do it."
So far, the defense has. And it'll continue to play that way, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said, because the players know it has to for the Gators to win.
"That's actually like a great feeling, to know that at some point in time right now with this game on the line we're about to [find out if] their offense is better than our defense," Floyd said. "Can their offense make big plays on a defense that's coming? We're relentless and that's how we want to play and that's how we strive to play every week."
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