No. 10 Gators hoping to avoid Poole party vs. Vols
With Lane Kiffin gone, the focus of the Florida-Tennessee series has shifted from coaches to players, from the sideline to the field. And nothing has dominated this Southeastern Conference rivalry like the ground game.
The team with more yards rushing has won 18 of the past 20 meetings, a staggering statistic that past and present coaches Steve Spurrier, Philip Fulmer, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer, Kiffin and newcomer Derek Dooley probably know as well as their playbooks.
The 10th-ranked Gators (2-0) are certain it will be the key again Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., especially after watching Tauren Poole the past two weeks.
''Our defense wants to kill the run, period,'' linebacker Brandon Hicks said.
Poole leads the conference in rushing. He ran 17 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns in Tennessee's opener against Tennessee-Martin and was even better last week against then-No. 7 Oregon. He finished with 162 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
He gouged the Ducks for 111 yards in the first quarter, ripping off runs of 39, 31 and 23 yards. Oregon pulled away late and won 48-13, but Poole caught the eye of Florida players and coaches who watched the game and broke every play down on video.
''He looks like a veteran right now,'' defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. ''He's strong, he's physical, he's running through tackles, he spins, he's got a low center of gravity, he's a good blocker. He's playing like a guy that's been a two-year starter rather than this is his first opportunity to play.''
Poole, a 5-foot-11, 213-pound junior from Toccoa, Ga., waited his turn behind Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty. Both backs were NFL starters this summer before Hardesty injured his left knee in the preseason.
Poole could be next.
''I'm just kind of rolling with it and take each play as it is,'' he said.
Running against Florida should be his toughest test. It's been quite the challenge for Tennessee (1-1) the past five seasons, even with Foster and Hardesty in the backfield.
The Volunteers had 305 yards rushing in those games, well below their average and considerably fewer than the Gators (799 yards). Not surprisingly, Florida won them all.
Poole, though, doesn't want to put too much pressure on himself to turn things around.
''I'm coming in with the same mindset I have every week,'' he said. ''I know I am going to have to step up and do great things for this team. I don't think things have changed with me. I look at each opponent like they are Florida or Alabama. That is just the way I am. I don't try to make it into something that it's not. I approach it on a professional level each game.''
The Gators are taking a stop-Poole-or-else approach. They know Tennessee ranks 15th in the nation in rushing and is averaging a league-best 6.5 yards a carry.
''Tennessee has always been a running team almost,'' Hicks said. ''We can't let them pierce our defense. We feel like no teams can come through our defense and just run all down our throats. We feel like that's not going to happen at all. Stuff may happen, but our plan is to basically get a three-and-out almost every series.''
It sounds good, but it might not be that easy.
South Florida ran for 244 yards at Florida last week, averaging 6.3 yards a carry. Quarterback B.J. Daniels did most of the damage (17-107), but running back Demetri Murray (11-62, TD) was also effective.
McCarney said defenders made wrong reads and missed open-field tackles - something they can't do against Tennessee.
''We gave up too many rushing yards last week,'' McCarney said. ''We've got to improve and we're working on that. This team comes at you. It's zone, it's power, it's lead draw, they know what they're doing. ... As we all know, you go on the road, you better play great defense to have a chance to win in the SEC.''
Only twice since 1990 has the team with fewer rushing yards won in this series.
It happened in 2000, when Travis Henry ran roughshod over the Gators but the Vols settled for five field goals. Florida pulled out a 27-23 victory thanks to Jabar Gaffney's disputed TD catch in the fourth quarter.
It happened again in 2002, when Florida used a big passing day from Rex Grossman to overcome a small deficit on the ground.
It hasn't happened since, though, making the game plan an easy one for the Gators.
''They're definitely a smash-mouth, power football team, and we've got to pride ourself on stopping the run,'' defensive end Justin Trattou said. ''For the D-line and the front seven, it's definitely a big week for us.''
AP Sports Writer Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.