No. 9 Florida looking for faster starts on offense

By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Pick an excuse, any excuse.

Inexperienced quarterback. Shuffled offensive line. Suspensions. Injuries. Fumbles. Botched snaps. Conservative play-calling.

Each of them has been an issue for Florida’s offense, which ranks 11th in the Southeastern Conference and 92nd in the country this season. Together, they have the ninth-ranked Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) in a funk, especially early in games. Coach Urban Meyer used one word to describe his team’s first-quarter performance:

“It’s awful,” Meyer said.

The Gators have failed to score in the opening 15 minutes against Miami (Ohio), South Florida and Tennessee. The numbers explain why. Florida has managed a combined 58 yards, minus-26 yards rushing, seven first downs, three punts, two turnovers and two failed fourth-down runs.

“It’s football. The ball doesn’t bounce up and down,” guard Carl Johnson said. “At the end of the day, I don’t really care how the offense is really going as long as we win. Isn’t that the main objective? To walk out with a W? No one remembers how the offense performed when you’re holding that crystal ball. They just know you won. You know what I mean?”

So far, Florida has masked its first-quarter problems with solid defense and second-half domination. The Gators have trailed in every game, but the defense hasn’t allowed the team to get too far behind and the offense has found its rhythm after halftime.

The Gators, though, realize they won’t be able to keep winning that way. Kentucky (3-0) visits Gainesville on Saturday, bringing with it a veteran offense led by quarterback Mike Hartline, running back Derrick Locke and receiver Randall Cobb.

Although Florida has won 23 in a row in the series, the last two bolstered by fast starts. The Gators scored 28 points in the first quarter against the Wildcats in 2008 and a staggering 31 in the opening 15 minutes last year.

“It’s important for us to start fast,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. “It’s important for us to play for 60 minutes. This has got to be our best football game. We’ve got to play for four quarters.”

With former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow running Florida’s spread-option offense, the Gators jumped on opponents early the last three years. They scored in the first quarter in 36 of Tebow’s 41 career starts, and scored on their opening possession in 24 of those games.

Florida can point to several reasons for the drop-off in 2010:

–Quarterback John Brantley made his first career start after spending three years playing mostly in mop-up duty.

–The offensive line was in flux the first two games because of left tackle Xavier Nixon’s knee surgery, guard James Wilson’s knee injury and Johnson’s one-game suspension.

–Receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. missed the first two games because of suspension, and tight end Jordan Reed missed the opener because of a knee injury.

–Ball security has been the biggest culprit. Center Mike Pouncey had several bad snaps in the opener and another one last week at Tennessee, accounting for four of the team’s 14 fumbles (five lost). Throw in three dropped passes by Deonte Thompson, some penalties and a few poor throws, and the Gators have struggled to move the chains early.

“There’s no question that we’re slow starting,” offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said. “A little bit’s got to do with we’re young. … We had spurts where we looked pretty good, we look real good at times, then we have the little spurts where it doesn’t look as good at all. We’ve got to even that out.

“I think that’s going to come with more experience and more familiarity with what we do best.”

Addazio said execution is the main problem right now, so he’s not ready to change the offense’s routine or start scripting plays.

But with games against top-ranked Alabama and No. 15 LSU looming, the Gators want to start playing first quarters like they have second halves.

“Florida’s restarting, if you really want to look at,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be slow. We’re going to have problems. … Right now we’re stagnant, but we’re still strong. We show off (in the) fourth quarter. Second-half dominance. That means more to me than winning by 80 points.

“I know in crunch time … we can fight hard in the fourth quarter and pull away from a hard battle. That means a lot more to me. It shows the team has a lot of character and will than beating somebody by 60 points.”

Received 09/21/10 07:08 pm ET