Early bye week gives Gators time to prepare
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Gators have momentum. They sit atop the SEC East. They are undefeated with a young quarterback who continues to show signs of improvement.
They also have some injuries to key players and things to work on before hosting No. 2-ranked LSU on Oct. 6.
Is now a good time for a bye week? Would an open week be better later in the season like normal for the Gators?
Florida coach Will Muschamp isn’t sure.
“I’ll tell you after LSU,’’ Muschamp said after Saturday’s 38-0 win against Kentucky. “That’s always kind of been my take on open weeks.”
If nothing else, the extra week of preparation will allow defensive end Dominique Easley (knee), defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (shoulder), tight end Jordan Reed (shoulder) and offensive lineman Chaz Green (ankle) more time to heal. Easley missed Saturday’s game and Green was held out of the lineup for the second consecutive week.
Meanwhile, Floyd left the game in the first half and did not return, and Reed was sandwiched by a pair of Kentucky defenders late in the first half. He tried to play in second half but lacked the proper range of motion in his injured shoulder.
Two other injured players – linebacker Jelani Jenkins (thumb) and defensive back Cody Riggs (foot) – have missed two consecutive games and should be aided by an extra week.
Regardless of who is available, the Gators plan to use the extra time to get better and try to avoid a repeat of the past two seasons when October rolled around.
“There are the obvious things we need to work on,’’ Muschamp said, referencing short-yard situations and red-zone offense. “There are things that we need to continue to hone in on. The two-back run game defensively, we really haven’t faced it when you think about it. We have faced mostly all one-back stuff, a little bit of Tennessee in two-back.
“I’ve got a list of things on Tuesday and Wednesday that we are going to work on. It’s Florida working on Florida, good on good. And then we’ll start on LSU on Thursday. That will be Day 1 of LSU and then we’ll go Friday with a good team lift.”
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel said there are certainly areas to improve upon with the Tigers coming to town. He said the Gators left some points on the field against Kentucky. Still, this is a test the Gators are ready to take.
“That’s why you come to Florida,” Driskel said. “You come to Florida to play in big games against LSU, two nationally-ranked teams. That's why I came here to play.”
Senior tailback Mike Gillislee rushed for a season-low 56 yards, but that didn’t bother running backs coach Brian White. Not with freshman Matt Jones carrying 10 times for 45 yards and sophomore Mack Brown four times for 31 yards.
“It’s great that we didn’t have to wear Gilly out,” White said. “Those guys need carries and need game time. It was really nice to see.”
On UF’s second-to-last drive, Jones carried seven straight plays -- for gains of 5, 11, 2, 6, 5, 8 and 1 -- to set up Florida’s final touchdown, a 1-yard sneak from backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
“He’s really coming along,” White said. “He’s a smart guy, he’s physical and really looked comfortable out there. It was good for him to get those carries and some good, physical runs.”
CAT SCRATCH FEVER ON DEFENSE
Interceptions were huge against the Wildcats, with the Gators picking off backup quarterback Morgan Newton three times in the second quarter. Junior cornerback Jaylen Watkins took one of those back 26 yards for a touchdown. It was the fifth straight year the Gators have scored a non-offensive touchdown against Kentucky.
2011: Jaye Howard returned a fumble two yards for a TD.
2010: Jeremy Brown ran an interception back 53 yards for a TD.
2009: Chris Rainey returned a blocked punt 23 yards for a TD.
2008: Ahmad Black returned an interception 40 yards for a TD.
WAITING ON DEBOSE
Redshirt junior receiver Andre Debose is one of the Gators’ most electrifying players. The Gator Bowl MVP on New Year’s Day has three career kickoff returns for touchdowns and is always a threat to run past a defensive back for a deep pass.
However, through four games, Debose has not caught a pass. He did not play in the first half of Saturday’s game. He returned two punts for eight yards in the second half but that was it as 10 different players caught passes other than him.
“He needs to practice better,” Muschamp said. “If he practices better, he’ll play more.”
Debose had 16 receptions for a team-high 432 yards last season.
Speaking of interceptions, De’Ante “Pop” Saunders had his first of the season Saturday. After missing UF’s first two games, Saunders has started the last two games as the Gators have opened in nickel packages and been key to Florida’s depth in the secondary after the loss of Cody Riggs to a foot injury.
“It’s terrific to have Pop back,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said of the sophomore from Deland. “The great thing about him, he has the ability to play more than one spot. He can play nickel, he can play safety, he can play our dime position. He is a player with really good football smarts and really good football instincts. He adds value to us and our defense with everything he brings to us.”
The shutout was the first by UF against a Southeastern Conference opponent since defeating Mississippi State 52-0 on Sept. 29, 2001, that’s a run of 92 conference game and four head coaches.
Make that two shutouts for Muschamp, who had a 39-0 win over Alabama-Birmingham last season in his second game as Gators coach.
Senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter paid close attention to the scoreboard in the final minutes.
“I remember being on the sideline, ‘please don’t let them score.’ I was praying they didn’t score,’’ Hunter said. “I wanted that shutout really bad. It feels good for a defense any time you can pitch a shutout. To shut out any SEC team is pretty special.”
Florida extended its winning streak over the Wildcats to 26 on Saturday. The last time the Gators lost to Kentucky was Nov. 15, 1986.
Florida’s domination of Kentucky is currently the longest-active win streak in the country in an uninterrupted series between FBS conference schools. The longest win streak against one opponent in major college football history is Notre Dame’s 43-game streak over Navy that lasted from 1964-2006.
“We didn't mention it,” Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel said of the streak. “That stat didn't really make us want to play any harder or play any different. We were going to come out and prepare like it's another SEC East team and they're just another team in the way of our goal.”
STAT TO REMEMBER
That theme “Finishing Strong” has been constant since last winter and will be deep into this winter, so a running count of how Florida plays into the second half will be something UF fans will hear over and over.
[Note: In case you hadn’t heard, the Gators were outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarter last season in SEC games.]
UF vs. opponents in 2nd half: 64-13
UF vs. opponents in 4th quarter: 34-0
The Gators honored the 1952 UF football team at halftime. Sixty years ago, the ’52 Gators were the first team in school history to go to a bowl game, defeating Tulsa in the Gator Bowl to finish 8-3 … Freshman receiver Ralph Andrades recorded his first career catch for the Gators and tight end Clay Burton his first of the season … Florida’s three interceptions in the second quarter was its most in a quarter since Reggie Nelson, Tremaine McCollum and Ryan Smith picked off passes in the third quarter at FSU on Nov. 15, 2006 … The shutout was the first suffered by Kentucky since a 49-0 loss to LSU on Oct. 14, 2006 … The Wildcats had six first downs in the first quarter but managed just six more the rest of the game … The Gators have outscored Kentucky 97-3 in the first quarter over their last five meetings.