Thursday, October 4, 2012
Gators' ground game has Tiger's attention
By Gary Laney
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU so physically dominated Florida last season in a 41-11 romp at Tiger Stadium, it might be hard to image this: Offensively, the 2012 Gators will be one of the more physical offenses the Tigers play all season.
Led by the SEC's second-best rusher in Mike Gillislee (402 yards on 69 carries), the 10th-ranked Gators run the ball more (44.5 times a game) and throw fewer passes (21.3 a game) than any other team in the SEC. And they do it well, as a 4-0 start and 30.5 points per game against a relatively competitive early schedule would attest.
The emergence of quarterback Jeff Driskel has indeed been a nice story for Florida. But make no mistake: The Gators are a running team.
So it's a steady dose of Gillislee and the more physical run game for which LSU's defense must prepare when the Tigers visit the Gators on Saturday at The Swamp. Forget the spread and high-powered passing attacks of years past. This season, Florida comes right at you.
"They look more downhill this year," LSU linebacker Luke Muncie said. "I wouldn't say more physical, but more downhill-style running."
Downhill is how things went for Florida almost from the opening kickoff last season against LSU. A young Gators team was outgained by more than a 2-1 margin in Baton Rouge, en route to an un-Florida-like 7-6 season in Will Muschamp's first year as coach.
"We faced some good athletes," Florida center Jon Harrison said. "We didn't come out there completely locked in."
This season, Muschamp's second, a more mature Florida team has looked quite dialed in.
The Gators have averaged 224.5 yards rushing a game, third best in the SEC. What's deceptive about it is while some SEC teams -- LSU included -- have played the bulk of their nonconference "gimme" games early, Florida has played three of its first four games against SEC opponents. While Florida's rushing stats trail LSU's (229 yards per game), the Gators' numbers have been compiled against Texas A&M, Tennessee and Kentucky while LSU has played a relatively light nonconference schedule.
"We know they are better [than last year]," LSU cornerback Tharold Simon said. "We see it on film."
Before the second half of last week's 38-22 win over Towson, facing a physical running game might not have seemed like a big concern for LSU. But Towson, led by one of the FCS's best running backs in Terrance West, gashed the LSU defense in two touchdown drives in which the Tigers missed tackles and gave up 69 rushing yards on 12 carries on Towson's last two possessions.
"That was uncharacteristic," LSU linebacker Kevin Minter said. "Usually, we finish games."
On paper, LSU's defense should be built to defend a team that runs like Florida or, for that matter, Towson's often straightforward attack. The fourth quarter of the Towson game aside, the Tigers have been outstanding against the run, third best in the SEC at 83 yards a game. One might think of the pass rush of Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery when thinking of the Tigers' front four, but really, it's built just as well to handle the run.
In its first SEC game, a 12-10 win at Auburn, LSU saw Auburn choose to go with a misdirection running game toward the edges to avoid running right at the talented middle of LSU's defense, where tackles Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson have dominated the point of attack and where Minter has been emerging as a first-rate middle linebacker.
Even with its remarkable speed, Auburn's misdirection didn't work, for the most part. Montgomery had 3.5 tackles for loss, often the result of staying home on misdirection plays. It's a trend this season. While the 5-0 Tigers have a fair share of quarterback sacks (11), the 41 tackles for loss are more remarkable. Considering that opponents have attempted 155 rushes, 41 tackles for loss means LSU is dumping opponents for loss on more than a quarter of their rush attempts.
The good thing for LSU was that Florida uses some of the same misdirection elements Auburn used. And, when Auburn did have success, it was mostly with a Wildcat look with backup quarterback Jonathan Wallace, a look Florida also uses at times with Trey Burton.
After LSU stymied Auburn's rush attack, the Tigers' rushing defense looked almost impenetrable. It stayed that way until the fourth quarter of the Towson game until an FCS team ran roughshod over LSU on back-to-back possessions.
"Our defense is known for playing the run hard and having that killer instinct," Minter said after the Towson game. "We just didn't today."
Like Florida in Baton Rouge a season ago, LSU wasn't "locked in."
A year more mature and a year better, Florida's run game is focused this season. The question is, will LSU's defense find itself again after an off night against Towson?