Gators' run defense to be tested against LSU
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Bowling Green used a rapid-fire passing attack to move the chains. Texas A&M's plan was to feature elusive quarterback Johnny Manziel and see how many plays he could make with his legs and arm. Tennessee relied on Tyler Bray to air it out. As for Kentucky, it had no answers against Florida's defense with back-up quarterback Morgan Newton called into emergency duty.
Through the first four games of the season, the Gators' defense has answered whatever the opposing team's offense tried. Florida made the necessary adjustments and walked off the field each time a winner.
A different kind of challenge awaits the Gators a week from Saturday when No. 3-ranked LSU stops by The Swamp.
The Tigers are a lot like what Florida coach Will Muschamp envisions for the Gators one day: a big, tough, run-it-up-the-middle-whenever-we-want offense. Try to stop us if you can.
A year ago when the going got tough in the SEC, the Gators' defense lacked the depth and size to slow down Alabama and LSU's power running games. In a 38-10 loss to then-No. 2 Alabama, Trent Richardson ran for 181 yards as the Crimson Tide rolled up 226 yards on 43 carries.
The next week at then-No. 1 LSU, the Gators did little to slow down the Tigers' ground attack as LSU rushed 49 times for 238 yards in a 41-11 win.
The Tigers have a new quarterback in Zach Mettenberger but the same old ground game. LSU is second in the SEC in rushing, averaging 247.5 yards per game and 5.5 yards a carry. Those numbers could increase significantly by the time the Tigers come to town since on Saturday they are playing heavy underdog Towson, a school that has only played an FBS opponent five times in its history.
The bye week allowed Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn more time to prepare, an opportunity they welcomed with open arms.
"Defensively, need to do a better job of stopping the run,'' Muschamp said. "A little bit of our issues [against Kentucky] came as far as the perimeter run for us, something we’re going to really work on here in the open date.
"In every defense, we have a primary run-force player who's in charge of the edge of the defense. In most situations that's a secondary player or a linebacker. We've had the primary run-force player lose contain at times. We haven’t done a good job replacing the primary run enforce player with the other guy."
Before Florida took control in last week's 38-0 win over the Wildcats, Kentucky moved the ball on its first two drives by getting outside in the run game. Once Florida took the lead, Newton went more to the air with disastrous results as the Gators intercepted three passes in the second quarter.
LSU is the first team this season the Gators will face that relies primarily on two-back sets. When Mettenberger lines up for the snap, he'll usually be joined by two running backs from a talented group that includes Kenny Hilliard, Alfred Blue, Spencer Ware and Michael Ford.
Hilliard leads the Tigers with 343 yards rushing and Blue has added 270 yards in only three games. Meanwhile, Ware and Ford each have more than 120 yards on the season and Ware led the Tigers with 109 yards in last year's win over the Gators in Baton Rouge.
"It's certainly a more traditional approach in the way they run the ball at LSU,'' Quinn said. "LSU is the opposite of [our earlier opponents]."
The Gators are sixth in the SEC in run defense, surrendering 119.5 yards per game and 3.8 per carry. They will have to be at their best to slow down LSU's potent attack.
One difference for Florida this season is it has more players to help out. The Gators are deeper up front and are expected to use more of a standard 4-3 defense rather than the nickel and dime packages Quinn has called in the first four games.
Muschamp said the extra depth has allowed the starting defensive linemen to take fewer snaps per game than last season.
"When you talk about another 15 to 18 snaps to a 300-plus pounder, it takes its wear and tear on them,'' Muschamp said. "And then you’re also taking on a double team with their guard and tackle for a combination of 700 pounds for another two to three more power plays. It makes a huge difference."
Muschamp is hopeful that starting defensive end Dominique Easley (knee) can return against LSU after missing the Kentucky game. He expects defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (shoulder) to be fine after Floyd sat out the second half of the win over Kentucky.
With buck Lerentee McCray, nose tackle Omar Hunter, Floyd and Easley the regular starters up front, reserves Leon Orr, Earl Okine, Damien Jacobs and true freshmen Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr. provide the depth that allows the starts to stay fresher.
Quinn said the extra bodies help both ways: to the run and pressure the quarterback should Mettenberger try to take over the game.
"You better have some guys available to rush at the end of the game if you're going to be able to finish some games,'' Quinn said. "That experience only helps us moving forward now where we have the ability to keep a defensive line fresher and longer in a game."