September 6, 2008

Defense gives Florida time to put Miami away

Florida 26, Miami 3: Recap | Box score

GAINESVILLE, Fla. It took Tim Tebow a moment to answer.

He didn't need the three quarters it took the Florida offense to get going, but he paused for a moment to think of the last time the Gators needed the defense to keep the offense afloat.

"Probably my freshman year," Tebow said.

His freshman year? You mean the year Florida won the national championship? The defense that had seven players drafted the following April?

Florida needed that kind of defensive effort Saturday against Miami. Florida had scored just nine points at the start of the fourth quarter. The Gators had been accustomed to much more, scoring at least 30 in eight consecutive games before facing the Hurricanes.

When most folks expected a Gators blowout, the defense came up with a renewed effort against Miami. The Hurricanes managed only three drives of more than 20 yards and only one of more than 40. UM finished with 140 yards.

The numbers aren't as important as what Florida's defense accomplished it carried a Heisman winner and Florida's star-laden offense for the bulk of the game. Miami overwhelmed Florida's offensive line early with blitzes. It took Florida three quarters to adjust, but in the meantime, the defense didn't budge.

"They're playing with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder," Florida coach Urban Meyer said.

Don't get overexcited about Florida's defense, though. It's far from a finished product.

Start with the level of competition. This did not resemble the Miami teams that defeated Florida six consecutive times since 1985.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Robert Marve made his first career start against a raucous and record Florida Field crowd. Marve and true freshman Jacory Harris guided an offense that struggled mightily last season. Miami then lost backup tailback Javarris James to an injury early in the game.

Florida kept Marve and Harris on the run for the most part, and the Gators finished with three sacks.

Florida 26, Miami 3
Florida ended its six-game losing streak to Miami and beat UM for the first time since 1985 thanks to its defense. UF scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. Miami quarterback Robert Marve made his first career start. He was 10-of-18 for 69 yards.
Florida receiver Louis Murphy began the volley of trash-talking with Miami early in the week and then dropped a couple of passes early. But he had a catch for 32 yards and then a 19-yard touchdown catch to put Florida up 23-3 to effectively seal the game.
Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham had his way with Miami's offensive tackles all night, finishing with eight tackles. And Miami's not going to be down for long if it keeps getting players such as linebacker Sean Spence. He finished with five tackles and two tackles for a loss, and had a couple of thundering hits.
Video review overturned an incomplete pass for Florida. After review, it was ruled Carl Moore had possession of a 28-yard completion when he was knocked out of bounds. The play put the Gators at Miami's 5 and opened the floodgates for the offense in the fourth quarter.
Miami running back Javarris James left the game with an unspecified injury. After his key catch, Moore left the game with a hip pointer.
Tebow has attempted 130 consecutive passes without an interception, breaking a Florida record held by fellow Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel. Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez didn't play in the opener but led the Gators with five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown.
At one point, though, it looked like Miami's offense would have its way with Florida. Marve led a 16-play drive that covered 8:42 in the second quarter, which resulted in a field goal. But Miami managed only 98 yards over the last 38:06.

Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes said that drive was a wake-up call.

"We had to get hit in the face," Spikes said. "That's what we needed. There's a time in the game when that's going to happen."

Florida won the 2006 national championship on the strength of its defense, but that side of the ball struggled last season. The Gators started two true freshmen in the secondary last season and were last in the SEC in pass defense and 11th in pass efficiency defense. There also was an all-new linebacker crew and a rebuilt front four. Florida may have led the SEC in run defense last season, but LSU's Jacob Hester, Georgia's Knowshon Moreno and Michigan's Mike Hart gashed the front seven in three of the Gators' four losses.

Despite the performance against Miami, there's room to grow. The Gators are starting seven sophomores on defense. The projected starting strong safety was lost for the season with a knee injury before fall practice began. At defensive tackle, Florida still is looking for answers, though sophomores Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders played well Saturday.

While Florida's defense has a different mindset than a year ago, it looks as if the offense is still the Tebow-and-Harvin Show.

Tebow led Florida in carries and yards 13 for 55. It wasn't necessarily on purpose. Many of Tebow's runs came on scrambles as Miami's front seven swarmed Florida's offensive line.

"Those weren't designed runs (for Tebow). We might have to start doing designed runs, I don't know," Meyer said. "I'm not pleased at all with the way we ran the ball."

Meyer has a major reason to protect Tebow and Harvin. Tebow was banged up at the end of last season, limiting him in the run game. Harvin had heel surgery on April, but a slower-than-expected recovery prevented him from playing in the opener.

The question is whether the supporting cast is up to the task. They weren't Saturday. Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Kestahn Moore combined for only 6 rushing yards against Miami. USC transfer Emmanuel Moody didn't play for reasons that aren't clear. Meyer said Moody wasn't hurt, and also said Moody must be more involved.

Florida led only 9-3 going into the fourth quarter, but when the offense got going, it was tough to stop, scoring on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter when it started throwing downfield.

"They were sending the linebackers down hill and knocking back our offensive line," Meyer said. "The minute we started working the perimeter, we started moving the ball. We should have done that earlier."

At least for now, Florida might have a defense it can rely on until Meyer finds an offense he likes. Florida is off next week before opening SEC play at Tennessee on Sept. 20.

"It was great knowing that it's OK, that we don't have to force anything," Tebow said. "The defense is going to come through."

David Fox is a national writer for He can be reached at

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