GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Florida spent the last two weeks trying to identify something it can do well offensively.
The Gators switched quarterbacks and settled on running the ball.
And that’s all they might do Saturday against ninth-ranked Georgia in nearby Jacksonville.
Having turned the ball over 15 times in the last four games – most of them on passing plays – Florida is taking a conservative approach and a seemingly simple game plan into one of the Southeastern Conference’s most storied rivalries.
”We’re going to pound the ball,” running back Kelvin Taylor said.
Added center Max Garcia: ”It has been our strong point this season, so why not do it?”
The ground game is about the only thing Florida has done well on offense this season.
Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel was sharp in the first two games of the season, but had struggled since, completing 43 percent of his passes for 385 yards in the last four games, with two touchdowns, nine interceptions and three fumbles.
Coach Will Muschamp benched Driskel during the bye week, turning things over to freshman Treon Harris.
But the Gators (3-3, 2-3 SEC) are hardly giving Harris much freedom. Instead, they have one message for the Miami native making his first career start: don’t turn it over.
”We’re an offense that has to take care of the football better right now,” Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. ”It’s the primary goal going into this next opportunity. … You do want to be explosive. You do want to make plays. You do have to score points to win in any league. But right now, until we figure out how not to create those (turnover) issues, that’s where our mindset has to be.”
Florida’s passing game has been mostly anemic during Muschamp’s four seasons, and it’s the main reason the coach’s job is in jeopardy as he tries to end a three-game losing streak to his alma mater, Georgia (6-1, 4-1).
The Gators have used Driskel, Harris, Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg, Jacoby Brissett, Trey Burton and John Brantley at quarterback during Muschamp’s tenure. The team also has had three offensive coordinators, three offensive line coaches and four receivers coaches in four years – far from ideal continuity on that side of the ball.
Muschamp blamed inconsistent quarterback and receiver play for the team’s continued offensive woes. Florida ranks 92nd in the nation in passing and 96th in total offense, continuing a trend that started in former coach Urban Meyer’s final season. The Gators ranked 88th in passing in 2010, 89th in 2011, 114th in 2012 and 107th in 2013.
Muschamp believed things would get better this year with Driskel returning from a broken leg and new coordinator Kurt Roper installing an up-tempo, spread offense.
But it’s been more of the same in Gainesville. Dropped passes, poor routes, missed blocks, sacks, fumbles and interceptions led to Driskel’s lost confidence and his eventual benching.
”It’s been disappointing coming out of training camp and thinking about where we were and where I thought we were,” Muschamp said. ”For whatever reason, from a confidence standpoint, lack of production has been there.”
And now the coaches have lost faith in the passing game.
So it’s time to run, run, run.
Here’s a potential problem: Georgia ranks second in the SEC and 13th in the country against the run. The Bulldogs, with five seniors and two juniors starting on defense, are giving up 105 yards a game and 3.0 yards a carry.
”We’re just causing problems for the offense,” Georgia senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera said. ”There’s been a lot of progress. We’re getting a lot of turnovers, and that’s one thing we didn’t have last year. That’s something we’ve focused on all year and something we focus on every day in practice. It’s good that it’s paying off now.”
No matter how good Georgia has been defensively this season, the Gators plan to stick with the run – in hopes of avoiding turnovers and giving themselves a chance.
”There are several things going on, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that we should play better offensively,” Roper said. ”Even if it’s just taking care of the ball.”