Citrus Bowl preview: Gators must force turnovers, get help from special teams to beat Michigan

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I’ve skirted around this subject, wondering how, exactly, I was going to preview the Citrus Bowl, and after thinking about how Florida could beat Michigan for a day and a half, the realization hit me.

They need to force turnovers, and/or make big plays on special teams, either to either create short fields or to directly score off them. Or else they will lose. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. It’s really that simple.

This is probably the type of article you’d expect to see labeling Treon Harris as the x-factor, breaking down what he can do to help the Gators win the game and what he has to avoid doing. But I pride myself on keeping it real, telling it like it is and not feeding my readers age-old cliches and, in plain English, BS. And Treon Harris, as you may have figured out by this point, is not a good quarterback, has no future leading this Florida team as their quarterback and presents his biggest threat when he’s handing the ball off. That’s not “bashing” him, that’s just telling it like it is.

There are other angles to take here in terms of a preview, but I’m not biting. I could break down the X’s and O’s of how Florida’s offensive line will fight for its life against a Michigan front seven that’s just plain nasty, note how the task is made harder without starting tackle Mason Halter, and come up with a Hail Mary plan for how to stop the nation’s fourth best defense from homesteading our backfield. I could point out that Harris isn’t actually horrible when operating from shotgun with a “take the snap and snap it off” mindset like he did at the end of the game against Vanderbilt. I could beg Florida’s receivers, namely Demarcus Robinson, to not be lazy with his route running and get open, and I could write a novel begging Harris to hit receivers when they do get open. I get that there are plenty of other approaches I could take to breaking this game down, but I don’t like wasting time.

In fact, let me save you guys time. Let me save thousands of girls from getting sick to their stomachs and boys from smashing inanimate objects foolish enough to get in their way. Michigan’s front seven, which features Willie Henry, Taco Charlton, and Chris Wormley (18 sacks between them) is going to completely overpower Florida’s offensive line, Treon Harris is going to be running for his life and the Gators are going to have an all time ugly performance on offense. You can call me a pessimist, or you can take the warning and watch the game accordingly. I’m just putting it out there, that’s what’s going to happen. And this isn’t exactly a stunning revelation, as everybody who’s watched this team play the last month knows it, too.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Florida can’t win.

Florida should not have beaten Penn State in the 2011 Outback Bowl, and they should not have beaten Ohio State in the 2012 Gator Bowl. Those teams had similarly inept offenses, the kind that you’d applaud if they got a first down. But the Gators did have a couple of tricks up their sleeve- the turnover battle and special teams.

The Gators picked off Penn State QB Matt McGloin five times in the Outback Bowl, and they needed each and every one of those five picks to win. Down 30-24 in the closing moments, Penn State was driving for the win when Ahmad Black stepped in front of a sideline pass and returned it 80 yards for the game clinching touchdown of the 37-24 win. The following year, the Gators gave Urban Meyer’s new team a preview of their future with a special teams clinic. Chris Rainey blocked a punt for a touchdown and Andre Debose ran a kick back for another touchdown; those scores proved to be the difference in a 24-17 win.

The script is eerily similar this time around. The Gators bring their sputtering offense to a Florida bowl game on New Year’s Day against a Big 10 opponent, but they appear to have the upper hand in those miscellaneous categories. Florida has picked off 14 passes on the year and forced 11 fumbles compared to just eight and two by Michigan. Florida also has a gem in Antonio Callaway as their punt returner; Callaway became the first Gator to return multiple punts for touchdowns in a season (against LSU and Alabama) since Brandon James did it (against Hawaii and Tennessee) in 2008.

I’d love to be wrong about Treon Harris and the offense, but enough experience watching them this season gives me a feeling I won’t be. It’s easy to say that Harris and/or the offensive line needs to get better if Florida is to beat Michigan, but we have such a large sample size that indicates that they won’t that it’s pointless to waste time typing or saying it. What we do have is proof that forcing turnovers and getting big plays from our special teams helps the Gators win games- not just historically, but this year as well. Think about it.

What people will remember is that Florida clobbered Georgia 27-3. What people will forget is that Florida doesn’t beat Georgia at all without forcing five turnovers, including a muffed punt that turned into a touchdown. You can rewrite those last two sentences as many times as you’d like, replacing Georgia with ECU and “muffed punt” with “Jalen Tabor pick six” or with Vanderbilt and “Austin Hardin game winning field goal.” Simply put, Florida is where they are right now because of their turnover forcing defense and special teams. I don’t want to think about how bad they’d be or how the Georgia, Vanderbilt and ECU games would have turned out without them.

But Florida has those two pieces. And in a one game season where the winner gains a tremendous amount of momentum and confidence, it’s up to them to give the Gators those intangible rewards heading into the offseason.

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