Florida-LSU preview: Defense is key, but Driskel must play well

I wrote something similar a week ago before Florida faced Tennessee on Rocky Top, but the idea is even more important now.

Simply put, Florida’s defense must be ferocious if the Gators want to beat LSU.

I understand completely that Florida was pretty solid against Tennessee for all four quarters. I understand that Jeff Driskel struggled mightily for the three quarters he was allowed to struggle for. I understand that Treon Harris entered the game and bailed out the Gators in the very end, and I understand that Florida would have lost the game if not for Harris.

But in the end, the defense nearly let the Gators down. Watch the tape. In the fourth quarter, the Gator defense allowed Worley to convert a 3rd and 10 and then a 4th and 10 on the same drive. Yes, immediately after the 4th and 10 conversion, Keanu Neal made the game clinching pick, but Florida’s defense got burned first.

OK, so it wasn’t all their fault- the offense allowed them to get really, really tired- but the defense is what Will Muschamp hangs his hat on. This defense is going to have at least four immediate NFL starters, and as many as all eleven could be starters some day on Sundays. The offense, on the other hand, will not even come close to matching that level of success. Maybe a couple of linemen can find themselves on NFL rosters someday, maybe a running back or two and possibly DeMarcus Robinson. This offense, for lack of a better phrase, is not supposed to be good. Muschamp recruits defense first, the defense has proven their worth with impressive stats, and on the other hand, Jeff Driskel is about one more bad performance away from being considered the biggest bust in Florida Gators QB history.

So this team has to work with what it has. This team doesn’t have Treon Harris right now, and this team doesn’t have a proven alternative to Driskel unless you count Will Grier, who just returned to practice this week after being sidelined with back spasms. What this team does have is a truculent defense capable of imposing its will on anybody other than Alabama.

The point is that Florida’s defense was good against Tennessee, but it needs to be even better to beat LSU. This team simply cannot rely on Driskel, so the defense has to play with the mindset that every possession is to preserve a championship. Yes, I’m saying that the Gators’ defense literally has to pitch a shutout if they want to win. Sure, Florida may give up some points here and there, but a shutout has to be their goal. The sad fact is, this offense is downright disgusting when Driskel leads it. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. A grand total of zero points through three quarters against a Tennessee team that gave up 48 through three quarters against Georgia and Oklahoma combined is unacceptable… but that’s the current state of this offense. And so it’s up to the defense to save us.

On the other hand…

Driskel has to play better. I mean, he’s just GOT to. No two ways about this. One more awful performance like the ones we saw against Tennessee and Alabama and he can guarantee that he’ll never take another snap at Florida unless every other quarterback gets injured (or unless Muschamp is even worse at making personnel decisions than I thought).

What does this mean?

To me, Driskel has proven over time that he is simply incapable of winning big games. Every time he tries to, he loses it, like against Georgia, Miami, Alabama and Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. But when he settles down and just hands the ball off, hits his short, easy tosses and just plays smart, Florida wins. See LSU and FSU in 2012. When given a small amount of responsibility, Driskel is fine. If you tell him, “you’re going to throw 10-15 passes and none of them will be deeper than 20 yards,” he does well. It’s when you ask him to read coverages, make throws under duress and throw an accurate ball that the trouble starts.

So it’s up to Kurt Roper to simplify the game plan for him. Every time he wants Driskel to throw, the play needs to be designed for Driskel to have two, three at most possible options. Driskel has to take every snap knowing there are only three things he can do: throw it to receiver #1, throw it to receiver #2, or get the hell out of here and pick up whatever I can with my feet, which is what he does best (Driskel for Doak Walker!). Overload him with possibilities, and mistakes happen. Roper has to call a game that decreases the chances of these mistakes as much as possible.

It’s not that Driskel “sucks” at throwing deep balls, or that he “is really bad” at making snap decisions; it’s that he’s physically incapable of doing these things. There’s a difference. I don’t “suck” at kicking 55 yard field goals; I simply cannot do it. I’m not “bad” at hitting 450 foot home runs, it’s just that it’s physically impossible for me to do it. Kicking 55 yarders or blasting baseballs 450 feet are things that I was not born to do, just the way reading defenses and throwing passes farther than 20 yards against SEC defenses are things that Jeff Driskel was not born to do. I don’t put myself in situations where I have to kick 55 yard field goals or hit baseballs 450 feet under pressure with lots of people counting on me for that very reason, and thus, Kurt Roper cannot put Driskel in situations where he will have to do these types of things with the fate of an entire football team riding on them.

Playing well, for Jeff Driskel, means two things. One, he has to avoid mistakes, and I’m going to break this down for you in great detail in a second. The fumble late in the first half against LSU in 2012 was a perfect example of what not to do. On a 1st and 10, Driskel took the shotgun snap, saw nobody open- now FREEZE. What he should have done was throw the ball away the instant he realized nobody was open and live to see 2nd and 10. That’s not the worst thing in the world by any means. But here’s what actually happened.

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Throw it away. There’s nobody pressuring you but you don’t see an open receiver that you trust yourself to get the ball to. That said, you do have a wide open first row of seats. The pocket is collapsing, making a scramble impossible. Just get rid of it and go to work on 2nd and 10.

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There you go, Jeff. Now you have the right idea. You’ve made a decision to throw the ball (I just hope you planned to throw it out of bounds and not force one into double coverage) and you’re about to follow through with your decision…

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…and then for some insane reason, you decide you’re Tim Tebow and try bully your way through a trio of LSU defensive linemen. On second thought, a sack isn’t the worst thing in the world either. Just go down there and limit the damage.

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No, DON’T change tactics midway to the ground, try to reverse your direction, get around the LSU lineman and make something spectacular happen. And for God’s sake, if you’re going to do all of that, at least PROTECT THAT FOOTBALL.

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Of course Driskel changes tactics midway to the ground. Of course he then tries to reverse his tactics, get around the LSU lineman and make something spectacular happen. And of course he doesn’t protect the football. End result? Fumble, recovered by LSU, and the Tigers are gifted with an easy field goal to end the half.

This is the kind of WHAT ARE YOU DOING mistake that Driskel cannot make against LSU this time around. Even though this year’s LSU defense appears to actually be worlds worse than that 2012 defense was- or maybe because of that- Driskel absolutely cannot give the Bayou Bengals any sort of gift.

The other thing that Driskel has to do in order for Florida to win is simple: he has to make two big plays. Yes, with his arm. One to make the Tigers think twice before sending the house, and two to prove that it wasn’t a fluke and to make them back off. Against Tennessee, Driskel couldn’t even make one big play with his arm. When he tried, DeMarcus Robinson played volleyball and spiked the ball right to Cameron Sutton for the easy pick.

If Driskel can make LSU respect him, things will come a little easier. The line will have an easier time blocking four or five guys than they will seven, holes will open up in the running game, and Driskel will have seams to scramble for big gains. Softening up this LSU defense will make the entire offense tick.

I believe it’s possible for Florida to win tomorrow, even with Jeff Driskel. Look, they’re 1-0 against LSU with Driskel at QB, and that win was against a Tiger team that was much better than this one. But Driskel will have to play perfect, mistake free football. A mistake like the fumble two years ago might not be salvageable this time around because that offense was slightly better than this one, and thus able to overcome it.

One last thing: if Florida loses tomorrow, it should cost Muschamp his job. Insert your “you say that every week” comment here, but this LSU team very well may be the weakest in Les Miles’ ten years in the Bayou. This Tiger team could easily finish 7-5, which isn’t bad for the SEC West, but is losing to a “not bad” team in the Swamp- at night- something we as Florida fans have come to accept? A loss could also kill Florida’s chances of winning the SEC East. Missouri is unbeaten in the SEC right now (OK, 1-0, but still) and should they beat Georgia, they will have knocked off their two greatest threats to the SEC East crown. Couple a Missouri win with a Florida loss tomorrow, and the Gators would need to run the table and have Missouri lose again in order to win the SEC East. We’ll know about this by the time Florida and LSU kick off tomorrow, as Georgia and Missouri play at noon.

But here’s the thing: the time for excuses is long over. I have no sympathy for Florida drawing Alabama from the West. It’s a mathematical certainty that you as an SEC East team can lose one game to a team from the other division, win your other seven SEC games and represent the East in Atlanta because that means you’ll have beaten every other team from the SEC head to head with (at worst) the exact same record. I’ve long ago given Muschamp a pass for losing to Alabama (really, before it even happened). Right now, Florida controls its own destiny to win the SEC East and go to Atlanta. If this team does not make it to Atlanta, it will be because the Gators have lost again, and considering that none of Florida’s remaining opponents are particularly impressive, the next loss very well may be- and definitely should be- the guillotine. Georgia’s good, but, you know, you have to beat Georgia.

The next game is LSU. Like I’ve said a million times this week, it’s winnable. If Driskel plays mistake free football and this defense lives up to its billing, Muschamp will live to see another week.