You probably noticed a bunch of things last Saturday night in the 38-10 blowout win over Ole Miss.
These things will differ depending on who you ask, of course. Some may tell you that the crowd in the Swamp was absolutely insane. Others may tell you the Gators’ offensive line’s stout performance after months of uncertainty at that position was most notable. And still others may rave about how Will Grier fought off the flu to have his best game as a Gator.
But one thing that wasn’t so easy to notice was how outstanding Geoff Collins’ defense was- yet the entire starting eleven on that side of the ball deserve helmet stickers.
Where to start?
Well, I guess the most logical place to start gushing about the defense is the result of the highly touted matchup of Vernon Hargreaves vs. LaQuon Treadwell. Or should I say Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, Florida’s #2 and #3 cornerbacks, against LaQuon Treadwell. The future high NFL Draft pick was matched up against the Gators’ second and third best corners- and was shut down, catching only five passes for 42 yards.
Meanwhile, Hargreaves freelanced a bit, covering different receivers on different plays (usually Cody Core). He snagged an interception on a desperation 4th and 15 heave in Core’s direction, and returned it to the Ole Miss 9. He (along with some help from his teammates, but mostly he) limited Core to just two catches for 15 yards.
So DBU came to play against Ole Miss, but what about the rest of the defense?
Well, the Gators’ front harassed Chad Kelly all night, to put it mildly. Kelly had easily his worst game as Ole Miss’s QB, going 26-40 for 259 yards, getting sacked five times, throwing an interception, and losing two fumbles- which doesn’t take into account the botched exchange with Jaylen Walton that turned into yet another fumble. Yet despite the Gators making his life hell, Kelly led Ole Miss in rushing with 40 yards- a stat that’s actually much worse than it looks to be on the surface.
The Rebels’ next leading rusher was Jaylen Walton with just 23 yards on the ground on nine carries. That’s a serious drop off from the 91.3 yards a game average he entered the game with. And because of the way the Gators stopped the Rebels’ backs early, Ole Miss abandoned the running game completely… unless you want to consider Chad Kelly running for four yards as a last resort a running game.
The bottom line is that whatever Ole Miss tried to do, Geoff Collins’ defense was ready to stop it. When stacked against the suddenly impressive offense (read: offensive line) when competing for praise and media coverage, it wasn’t the most noticeable takeaway, but given where this defense was a week ago- missing tackles everywhere you looked, being caught badly out of position on several big plays and getting run over for touchdown drives- it’s worthy of some applause.
That’s not to say the defense was by any means perfect, though.
Ole Miss finished the day with 328 yards of total offense. That’s nothing to be embarrassed about for Florida’s defense, especially given that most of those yards came in garbage time, but that stat doesn’t indicate an out-of-this-world performance, either.
Except that 225 of those yards came on three drives: an 80 yard drive midway through the second quarter that resulted in a missed chip shot field goal, a 70 yard drive to start the second half that chewed up 9:35 and led to a meaningless field goal, and a 75 yard touchdown drive in garbage time.
What that means is that Florida’s defense, while not perfect, was very good, and was at its best when it mattered most. The Rebels drove inside the red zone twice, but the Gators’ defense buckled down and forced two field goal attempts. Obviously, allowing teams to drive inside the red zone and then having to play lockdown defense with your backs against the wall is something I’d like to avoid altogether, but it’s a great sign that this defense feels the added pressure of the opponent nearing the end zone and being able to step up and slam the door shut on them.
Perhaps linebacker Jarrad Davis put it best: “When a team gets close to scoring on us, it’s personal. We’re going to fight until every ounce of energy is gone.” That right there is precisely the attitude you want a defensive player to have. Defenses as a whole will make mistakes, give up some yards, and even some long drives. They bend a little bit. It happens. But when the opponent gets into the red zone, you as a defense know that the number of plays remaining in the drive is limited. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel; just make three or four stops and you can jog off to the bench and get some water knowing that while you may have made a mistake or two, you’ve done your job in the end as you watch the other team either kick a field goal or turn it over on downs.
So having done that against Ole Miss (and in the end against Tennessee), this Gator defense proved that it’s still the heart and soul of this team. Say what you want about Muschamp- I hate him and think he deserves zero credit for any success this team has going forward thanks to the lack of offensive pieces he left- but he did leave McElwain with several talented and well coached defensive studs that know the importance of making plays when the team needs them to. (Because let’s face it, with the offenses Muschamp oversaw, every play was a big play for the defense; if they didn’t make big plays consistently, Florida would have been even worse than 4-8 and 7-5 the last two years.) Whether it be a sack, fumble, interception, third down stop or an open field tackle on third down and long, I trust that this defense will make the play when it matters most.
Geoff Collins’s squad is no longer the only of the two units that’s capable of making plays, but it’s still better at it than the offense. And so as the offense continues to grow and develop, it’s up to the defense, which we know for a fact is tremendous, to stand tall and keep making plays. There have been times where this defense bent, and there will be more times where the defense will bend, but as long as it doesn’t break, the Gators may have as realistic a shot at a national championship as any team in the country.