Florida's defense baffling foes, living up to hype
The top-ranked Gators openly talked about wanting to be the best defense in the country, maybe even the best in recent years. With all 11 starters and every backup returning from last year's national championship team, they were able to focus on creative schemes instead of simple fundamentals.
So far, they have baffled everyone.
The Gators (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) lead the nation in total defense, allowing 203 yards a game, and are No. 1 in scoring defense at 6.4 points a game. The unit should get its biggest test Saturday against Arkansas (3-2, 1-2).
The Razorbacks top the conference in passing offense behind quarterback Ryan Mallett and have scored more than 40 points in four of five games.
"This is what we love," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "For us to be a great defense, you have to stop one of the greatest offenses."
Florida appears ready for the challenge.
Dunlap and fellow defensive end Jermaine Cunningham are keeping constant pressure on quarterbacks. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper are filling gaps, stuffing runs and getting in on just about every play. Cornerbacks Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins are locking down the league's best receivers.
Of the 60 drives against Florida in five games, opponents have managed just two touchdowns and six field goals.
"It still can (get better)," Haden said. "The thing that we realize is we still haven't really played great. We've played good, but when we look at the film, we just see a whole lot of spots we can improve on."
Coach Urban Meyer plans to rely on the defense, too.
With quarterback Tim Tebow still recovering from a concussion, and his receiving corps still trying to prove it can carry its weight, the Gators are content to run the ball and play defense.
"We're one of the top running teams in America," Meyer said. "I do feel like we're going to have (throw more) and I want to. But I'd rather just win games and do it the right way."
The right way?
More like the smart way.
Florida's defense has basically smothered opponents. Since the Gators played a bland, two-look scheme and gave up 323 yards to Charleston Southern in the season opener, Charlie Strong's unit has been bulletproof. Troy (139 yards), Tennessee (210 yards), Kentucky (179 yards) and LSU (162 yards) managed fewer yards against the Gators than they have averaged the rest of the season.
Florida has allowed few big plays, hardly any long drives and even less points.
"That's what we are expected to do and we expect ourselves to do," Dunlap said. "That's one of our goals. As we said in the beginning, we wanted to be the greatest defense, and for us to be considered in those categories, we have to do those things. Those are things we just thrive on and work hard to accomplish, to meet our expectations."
With such high expectations, Strong's toughest task has been to keep his guys motivated and playing on edge. Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin provided the fodder for Florida's SEC opener. Kentucky running back Derrick Locke did the same the following week with an innocuous quote that left Florida defenders believing he called them soft.
"There's no shortage of bulletin-board material around here," defensive end Justin Trattou said. "It doesn't really take much to motivate us. Everyone always has an opinion about the Florida defense, so we always just listen out. At the end of the day, no matter what they say, we've got to stick together and go out and prove it on the field."
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit did the Gators a favor before last week's game at then-No. 4 LSU. He called out Spikes and Dunlap during "College GameDay," saying they needed to play well for the team to have a chance, and the players were listening.
"You call out (Dunlap and Spikes), I love when that happens," coach Urban Meyer said. "If someone wants to call out Tebow, help yourself. Go get him. That helps our job. Those guys aren't lacking confidence."
The Razorbacks have been quiet this week. Watching video of Arkansas' offense - ranked 10th nationally in passing - said everything the Gators needed to hear.
"Arkansas has got a real good offense, so this is just like calling us out itself," Dunlap said. "You don't even have to verbalize it."