Brantley, Ponder fall short of lofty expectations
Florida's John Brantley and Florida State's Christian Ponder are getting plenty of support, at least off the field.
Coaches and teammates defend the quarterbacks at every turn. The Gators (7-4) insist their offensive problems aren't Brantley's fault, pointing to dropped passes, poor protection and a slowed running game. The Seminoles (8-3) believe Ponder's drop-off is exaggerated, saying his increased win total is all that matters.
This much is certain: Neither quarterback has lived up to expectations.
Brantley was supposed to replace former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and keep Florida in the national championship picture. Ponder was supposed to emerge as a Heisman candidate and lead Florida State back to national prominence.
Instead, they're squaring off Saturday in one of the rivals' least meaningful matchups in years.
Sure, Florida's six-game winning streak in the series is at stake, along with bowl destinations, bragging rights and recruiting battles. But the most significant number on the scoreboard at Doak Campbell Stadium will be the result of the North Carolina State-Maryland game.
The quarterbacks, as usual, get much of the blame.
Brantley has thrown for more than 200 yards only four times this season. He has eight touchdown passes, eight interceptions and he's been sacked so often that his shattered confidence seems to be a bigger problem than his bruised ribs, sore shoulder and sprained thumb.
''You've got to forget about it,'' Brantley said. ''If you let that hang over to the next week then you're going to be distracted. You're going to be thinking about that way too much than your task at hand that day at practice or that opponent. You've just got to keep moving forward.''
Brantley has completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,968 yards. His problems have been evident from the season opener. Receivers Carl Moore and Deonte Thompson have been unreliable, the senior-laden offensive line has been a disappointment and Florida's coaching staff failed to tweak the spread offense to suit Brantley's strengths.
Compounding the issues, running back Jeff Demps has been hampered most of the year by a foot injury. Backups Emmanuel Moody and Mike Gillislee also missed time with injuries.
''I see a lot of guys getting down on Johnny this year, but it's a team game,'' Moody said. ''The offensive line has to protect him, the running backs have to be able to make plays in the run game, the receivers have to get open. We can't just focus on one player and think that he's doing bad just because they see the statistics or the results.
''We have to see the thing as a whole and see what every person on the field is doing.''
What happens when the Gators can't run?
''It kind of messes it all up,'' Brantley said.
Ponder has gotten more help from his running game, but his receiving corps has been a problem all season.
Jarmon Fortson, pegged to be a big-play threat, was dismissed from the team in August. Without him, Bert Reed, Taiwan Easterling and Willie Haulstead have been fairly pedestrian. Reed tends to drop passes in key situations, Easterling struggles to get open and Haulstead is dealing with a concussion.
As a result, Ponder's numbers have dipped, making his Heisman Trophy website - http://cp7forheisman.com/ - about as useful as Peter Warrick's NFL rookie card.
''I'm not disappointed with this season,'' said Ponder, whose team can still reach the Atlantic Coast Conference title game if Maryland beats North Carolina State. ''We got six wins in the ACC and we have a big game coming up. ... It would have been a cool thing to win the Heisman. ... I can live with not playing as well as I could have as long as the team wins.''
Nonetheless, Ponder's stats are way down from 2009.
He averaged 302 yards passing in nine games and threw 14 TDs and seven interceptions before a shoulder injury sidelined him last season.
This year, he's averaging 182 yards and has 17 TDs and eight interceptions. He has completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,817 yards while battling through elbow, biceps and triceps injuries.
''I don't think he has really dropped off from last year,'' Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. ''His performance hasn't dropped off. His statistics may have, but his wins are up. Isn't that the ultimate measure of a quarterback, to win? His consistency level hasn't dropped off.''
Not surprisingly, Brantley has gotten similar support.
''We have to do a better job in a lot of areas,'' Gators coach Urban Meyer said. ''To say it's all on our quarterback, that's not fair. That won't be said.''