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Florida Gators

Gators know path to Auburn win- Defense

Matt Zemek

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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When I think of how Florida can beat Auburn in 2019, I recall how the Gators beat LSU and Joe Burrow in 2018.

Yes, it is true that Ed Orgeron hadn’t yet made the necessary and enlightened transition to a modernized passing offense at LSU. Yes, it is true that Joe Brady has done wonders for Burrow’s development as a passer this season; those improvements had not surfaced 12 months ago at this time.

Yes, 2019 LSU is not 2018 LSU.

Nevertheless, remember how Florida handled the Tigers of Baton Rouge a year ago. It offers the roadmap for how the Gators can chomp down on the Tigers of Auburn this season.

Though Burrow’s evolution as a passer had not yet soared to the next level, Burrow had already demonstrated a knack for making clutch plays. His last-minute drive on the road to beat Auburn transformed Orgeron’s coaching career and set the tone for LSU’s redemptive, overachieving 2018 season.

Burrow was a confident quarterback entering last year’s Florida game, even though he had not come especially close to reaching the height of his powers. The Gators weren’t facing a juggernaut offense (this year’s LSU offense has earned that label), but they weren’t facing the inept LSU offense of previous seasons, either.

Florida’s plan against LSU last year was to force Burrow (getting crunched above) to consistently outmaneuver the Gators with a lot of short and short-intermediate passes. The Gators were not going to get beaten on long balls. They allowed only one completion longer than 23 yards, none of 40 yards or more. Burrow completed 19 passes for a modest 192 yards… and he completed barely more than 50 percent of his 34 throws. When he did challenge the Gators down the field, Florida was ready.

Making Burrow win with more and shorter throws put LSU’s offense into throes of agony.

Burrow wasn’t able to be the consistent quarterback the Gators required him to become. Florida pounced on opportunities when they emerged, snagging two interceptions, including a game-sealing pick six in the final minutes of regulation.

Florida forced three turnovers from LSU’s offense. As a result, the Gators collected points off turnovers and created a game in which their offense produced only two scoring drives longer than 43 yards. Florida scored 27 points without its offense having to do too much. Two sustained drives plus a short-field score and the pick-six gave the Gators more than enough to beat LSU.

Doesn’t that seem like the exact template which – if executed properly – will lead Florida to a win over Auburn?

Bo Nix, like Burrow last year, is a confident quarterback entering this game. He just torched Mississippi State and hit the deep balls he had been missing in previous games.

Yet, skeptics (such as myself, I freely admit) will point out that Mississippi State at home isn’t Florida in the Swamp. Moreover, Mississippi State’s 2019 defense isn’t anywhere close to the loaded 2018 MSU defense which featured three top-27 NFL Draft picks.

Force Bo Nix to hit lots of short passes. Don’t allow Auburn speedsters such as Anthony Schwartz to get behind the Gator secondary. Generate a consistent pass rush which keeps Nix contained in the pocket and doesn’t provide running lanes for the Auburn quarterback.

Get points off turnovers. Set up at least one if not two or three short-field drives.

Ask Kyle Trask and the offense to put together one or two long drives and otherwise take care of the ball, facilitating good field position to increase Florida’s margin for error on both sides of the ball while reducing those same margins for Auburn.

Ixnay on the Nix, eh? It is Florida’s most direct path to an upset on a day when Kyle Trask needs to be the less mistake-prone quarterback on the field. That is a big ask for Florida… but it did beat Joe Burrow last year.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

Florida Gators

Gators QB Trask shows more growth in key win Saturday

Matt Zemek

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Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

It was messy. It wasn’t the immaculate performance Kyle Trask delivered for the first two and a half quarters against LSU the week before.

This game against South Carolina on Saturday felt like a return to reality for Trask, who is a capable quarterback but doesn’t have as many tools in the toolbox as the man he replaced, the injured Feleipe Franks.

We have seen many examples over the years of college football programs – even those led by elite coaches – not picking the right quarterback for opening day of the season. These programs and coaches stumbled onto the superior quarterback after benching the Day 1 starter or watching an injury force their hand.

Nick Saban picked Blake Barnett over Jalen Hurts at Alabama a few years ago

Clay Helton of USC picked Max Browne over a man named Sam Darnold.

In 2005, West Virginia started the season with an average quarterback named Adam Bednarik. He got hurt… and Pat White entered to completely change Rich Rodriguez’s career and the direction of the West Virginia program.

Yes, it is sometimes true in college football that the original starting quarterback wasn’t the best quarterback for the team.

It is not true with Florida.

Franks did not play well in this year’s opener against Miami, but Franks – at full health, able to expand the field with his scrambling and give the Gators’ offense more options for moving the ball – still offered more upside than Trask. This is not a criticism of Trask; at the very least, you don’t have to interpret it that way.

One can simply acknowledge that Franks was the starter for a reason. Trask was thrown into a very uncomfortable spot.

He handled it well, but he still had to live with his limitations. So did Florida.

This marked a prefect prelude to Saturday, on the road, in a roaring Williams-Brice Stadium. This was a microcosm of Trask’s 2019 season.

He was thrown into an uncomfortable position. Not everything was working well for him. Yet, his team needed him. He had to somehow find an answer in the midst of a challenging situation.

Down 20-17 in the fourth quarter, facing third-down pressure against an upset-minded opponent, what would Trask do? How would he respond?

The answer could not have been better for him, Dan Mullen, or the Gators.

Trask threw strikes in the fourth quarter. He threw them on the equivalent of a 3-2 count with runners in scoring position and two out… after racking up a high pitch count and having hitters work counts against him all game long.

Trask made so many bad reads through the first three quarters of this game. Dan Mullen was barking at him. The Gators’ offense sputtered against an in-form South Carolina defense which had made winning plays against Georgia and was rightly feeling confident that it could make those same plays one week later versus Florida.

The challenge wasn’t simply for Trask to play better; it was to block out the negativity from the first three quarters and provide the calm leadership of a team in dire need of stability.

Trask obviously needed to improve his reads and responses, but just as important was the need to provide a strong presence which would radiate through the huddle, anchoring Florida in a time of trial.

Trask answered the bell. It was in many ways a better outcome for Florida than if everything had gone swimmingly from opening kickoff to final gun.

THIS kind of win, not a drama-free joyride, truly prepares the Gators for the “Cocktail Party” against Georgia.

THAT is the game in which a smooth ride would be greatly appreciated by Gator fans… but they needed a triumph over difficult circumstances first.

They got it on Saturday. Kyle Trask conquered his doubts and his flaws, not just the Gamecocks.

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Florida Gators

Gators latest reunion with Muschamp defining one

Matt Zemek

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The one time the Florida Gators maxed out on the gridiron this decade did not come from Urban Meyer in the 2010 season, his last in Gainesville.

It did not come from Jim McElwain, despite the fact that Mac is the only UF coach this decade to win the SEC East.

It did not come from Dan Mullen, even though Florida’s only New Year’s Six bowl win this decade (formerly known as a BCS bowl) was produced by Mullen last season against Michigan.

No, the best Florida football season this decade was authored by Will Muschamp, the man the Gators will face on Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina.

Yes, it is true that Muschamp’s tenure at Florida was generally a failure because of the rock-bottom nature of his other three seasons on the job. Yet, in 2012, everything fell into place for Muschamp. He not only crafted an 11-1 regular season which was accompanied by a top-five finish in the pre-bowl polls; he won in a manner Will Muschamp likes to win: with defense.

It figures, then, that Muschamp’s biggest win at South Carolina – knocking off No. 3 Georgia, Muschamp’s alma mater, Between the Hedges in Athens – was built by a defense which continued to make one big play after another.

The Gamecocks continued to bother Jake Fromm, and when a Georgia receiver bobbled a pass, South Carolina was there to pluck the interception and change the flow of the game.

It was a Muschamp masterpiece, forged in the face of all sorts of limitations, chiefly the injury to quarterback Ryan Hilinski. South Carolina had to survive on offense, avoiding a huge mistake, and then hope that its defense could continue to stand on its head and carry the team home.

That is exactly what happened.

South Carolina won without scoring a touchdown in overtime. It won in spite of a missed 33-yard field goal which would have won the game. It won despite the offense getting shut out in the second half of regulation.

It was the ugly kind of win which was common for Florida in 2012.

Muschamp is aiming for the best two-week sequence of his tenure as the Gamecocks’ head coach. Beating his alma mater, Georgia, and his former employer, Florida, in consecutive games would give Muschamp a set of memories to last a lifetime.

Winning these two games might also be enough to save his job.

Standing in the way are the Gators, who might be thinking about the plays they didn’t make against LSU, or dreaming about beating Georgia in a few weeks.

Florida can’t worry about what it failed to do, and it can’t win a game which hasn’t yet arrived on the schedule.

This game might define Will Muschamp’s future. It definitely defines Florida’s present-day reality.

The past several Florida teams – mostly under McElwain but also last year under Mullen – were prone to letdowns against one or two beatable teams on the schedule. If Florida is to return to the 2012 heights established by Muschamp, and to the high standard consistently set by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, this is the game Dan Mullen has to win.

Sure, everyone will focus on Georgia, a game whose importance requires no explanation. However, the difference between a decent 9-3 season and an excellent 11-1 season is built not just on beating Georgia, but on winning games such as this one.

Florida’s defense – smoked by Joe Burrow and LSU – now faces a much more manageable opponent when it lines up against the South Carolina offense Some teams are too good. LSU and Burrow are playing at an elite level The Gators just need to tip the cap to the Tigers. It happens.

That loss isn’t a bad loss, but it will be a much bigger problem if the Gators don’t learn from it. This South Carolina game will show of Florida can adjust and mentally reset, or if old demons are still haunting Gator football.

This game is defining for former Florida coach Will Muschamp. It will also define where the Gators stand, how well they carry themselves, and what they are capable of achieving this year.

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