- Jeff Barlis, College Football
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- On what must be a lengthy list of disappointments this season, Florida coach Will Muschamp counts his run defense among the most confounding.
Perhaps this was to be expected because Florida lost seven starters from last year's defense, which ranked fourth in the nation against the run. Defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter; the entire linebacker unit of Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins and Lerentee McCray; safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans -- all were solid run-stoppers who played up the middle.
"I think I felt really good going into the season with where we were," Muschamp said earlier this week. "Certainly, we've not had the results we wanted to consistently through the year and that's been frustrating."
The numbers tell an incomplete story, as Florida ranks No. 15 in the nation in run defense, giving up 109.7 yards a game. But Muschamp is ever the perfectionist when it comes to his defense, and lately it hasn't done a good job of stopping the run when it matters the most.
"I think that just playing blocks up front, we’ve been inconsistent and inconsistent across the board," he said. "We’ve done some nice things at times, but not enough to be able to stop the run consistently, especially when we’ve needed to in critical situations."
The lack of clutch stops has become obvious during the Gators' four-game losing streak. In a critical loss to Missouri, after Florida's offense scored a TD late in the third quarter to claw back to within six points, the UF run defense gave momentum right back. Missouri rushed for 59 yards, including a 50-yard run by Henry Josey, to set up a field goal and ice the game.
In the next game in Jacksonville, Florida allowed Georgia's Todd Gurley to salt away the clock with 19 of his 100 yards on a fourth-quarter drive. And in last week's 34-17 home loss to Vanderbilt, the Commodores completed just six passes en route to scoring 34 points.
This week, the challenge of fixing the run defense became tougher when Muschamp announced starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison is out for the season with torn cartilage in his knee. Morrison led the Gators with 56 tackles.
But the leaky run defense might be more precisely be traced to the season-ending injury of senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley. He was perhaps the Gators' best overall player, an emotional focal point who led the team off the field and was a wrecking ball on it.
Florida's defense allowed 55.3 rushing yards per game in the first three games of the season. Since Easley's injury, the Gators have allowed 136.8 per game.
"I said it when it happened, you don't replace Dominique Easley," Muschamp said. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint. It's the heart of your team. So it's tough. But we certainly have capable players to come out and play well, and play better than we've played in some situations. And I think you don't put your finger on one thing and say it's because of this. It's the cumulative effect of different things that have occurred, and you've just got to overcome it."
UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin agreed, saying the problem is less about personnel or physicality than it is a mindset the remaining players need to cultivate.
"We've played good at times with the guys we have," he said. "We can't allow things to affect us, whether it's a guy being out, whether it's we're back on the field because of a sudden-change situation. None of that should affect how we play, and at times I feel like it has. That's the learning process we need to take from all this. We need to play our style the way we play defensively at all times regardless of what the situation is. So, it's a continuing learning process."
1dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough