This weekend the Florida Gators lost their third game of the year, falling on the Plains 17-6 to an Auburn team that isn't quite in the same stratosphere as the Gators' previous two losses, Alabama and LSU. Saturday was a game that Florida needed to win. A game that they needed to stay in the thick of things for the SEC East race. A game that the Gators needed to win to restore a little faith and gain a little confidence for a roster populated with a mix of older guys used to Ws and youth that could use a spirit boost.
Entering the game with a pair of freshman quarterbacks, it was clear this one would be on the Gators defense to keep close and give the offense a chance, much like Ohio State in its match up this past weekend against Illinois. Give the kids on offense as many chances with the football as possible to allow them to be successful.
For the most part the defense held up its end of the bargain in surrendering just 278 total yards to the Tigers. The Gators held the Auburn combination of quarterbacks to just 7 of 16 passing for 123 yards and limited the Tigers to just 3.6 yards per carry for a total of 155 rushing yards. This Gators defense forced punts and held Michael Dyer to just 73 yards on 23 carries. There really was not much more to ask of this Gators defense. Sure, they could have forced more turnovers, but quite honestly turnovers are part effort and part luck.
So the defense played quite well in Jordan-Hare Stadium and got the Gators the ball back. However, as expected, this offense was not tearing up the field, churning up yards or piling up points. It was dull, uninventive, ineffective and flat out bad on so many levels. The problems that we knew Florida would have against elite defenses such as Alabama's "sledgehammer" or LSU's "death by 1,000 knives" units showed themselves again Saturday.
No vertical receiving threat. No quarterback to get the ball to these non-existent vertical threats. No straight-ahead running game. No back capable of toting the rock for the tough yards. Quite simply, an offensively inept mess.
Yet, with 7:44 to go in the game, the Gators found themselves down eight with a chance. Just two field goals on the scoreboard, but a play and a two-point conversion from tying the game up.
They need to score. Put something up on the board. Alas, they do not. This Gators offense goes three and out, picking up seven yards total, but moving just two on following a penalty before the punting the ball back to Auburn.
However, that isn't the drive that irks me for the Gators. No, the previous series is the one that sticks out as the drive that only served to sink their efforts in this game. That was the drive that ultimately made me decide that this game was over for the boys out of Gainesville.
Florida's 11th drive of the game ended in a three-play meltdown of ineptitude. The 10th drive was quite the opposite. A successful blend of run and pass that moved the ball down the field and netted the Gators 64 yards of offense. A drive that showed their sidelines and their players that Auburn was not 'Bama or LSU. A drive that was building confidence on a Gators squad that had punted each of their previous three times with the football after a grand total of 13 plays. A drive that was helping grow their belief.
Then that belief was snuffed out. Killed at the 16-yard line of the Auburn Tigers. Squashed like a squirrel on the side of the road. Eating up yards and gobbling up clock and the flame of confidence that was growing in the Gators was extinguished as quickly as it was ignited. As Jeff Driskel's pass hit the ground, the Gators confidence hit the ground as well.
Ordinarily here on The Drive we get into play calling and handling situations: why Nebraska went away from attacking the edges; what North Carolina did wrong in the two-minute offense against Georgia Tech; how Chris Relf needs to commit to getting into the endzone.
This time there is no real play analysis to be made. Florida's offense saw legitimate success just four times against Auburn. Success, defined by picking up more than one first down. Only four drives did the Gators put together two or more first downs. On the fifth drive of the game, Florida got two first downs and a field goal to with 34 yards. On the sixth drive of the game, Weis' unit picked up 64 yards and grabbed another field goal. On the 12th and final drive of the game, Florida was down 11 with time expiring but picked up 28 yards and two first downs.
This 10th drive, though... This 10th drive, the Gators were putting it together. Four first downs, the most they were able to pick up all game. Four first downs and 64 yards, down eight. Matching their longest drive of the game, but this time the Gators walk away with no points.
Now, personally, I understand the decision to go for it on fourth down. Your team is seeing success, they are picking up yards at 6.4 a clip on this drive. Driskel is completing some passes, Weis is working Mike Gillislee, Trey Burton and Chris Rainey into the mix. Deonte Thompson even makes an appearance with a reception.
This is as good as it has been for the Gators. Auburn is making mistakes, both on defense and in discipline with a couple penalties. Will Muschamp and Charlie Weis decide "now is their shot" to continue the success.
I don't like it. I didn't like it when they did it, and after re-watching the game, I feel the same way. I don't like the decision. That said it doesn't even remotely fall into the idiot category the way Ron Zook's fourth quarter go-for-it-down-10 decision does.
Personally, I'm a believer in ebb and flow, in riding a wave, in keeping your sideline of 17-23 year olds as positive as possible. Confident players play better football. Teams that believe they can move the football move the football. And, yes, had Florida converted on that fourth down, confidence would have shot through the roof. Perhaps the Gators score and get the two-point try to tie the game.
However, the conservative, clock-watching, let's-not-screw-this-up nature that I have is not willing to risk it. Going for it on fourth down is for short yardage, that wonky zone between a sky punt and a makeable field goal, inside the five early or when you're dominating, and desperation.
Get the points.
Sure you're still down five, but your players now have a successful drive under their belt. Get the points so that they didn't push the ball down the field for nothing. Get the points so that they didn't just spend 5:23 in the fourth quarter on what essentially amounted to a drawn-out, physically grueling, really good Kyle Christy punt.
You get three on the board and it is 14-9. You get a TV timeout. You get to celebrate a little bit. You get to kickoff. Your defense charges out on to the field with some vigor, instead of trudging out thinking "son of a bitch, they didn't score, again." You've got some excitement and some emotion about you, and that offense is over there talking to Charlie about what worked, what didn't and how they are going to get back out there and put up a TD to get the win.
The call isn't about right or wrong. What Zook did in the Ohio State game was wrong. This is a matter of preference. Some prefer the approach of "this is our best chance of scoring, so let's go for it." I'm of the "success, no matter how small, breeds success" school of thought. Sort of akin to a quarterback struggling to hit intermediate routes using screens or quick hitters to get confidence back before tossing it deeper again.
Most importantly, it boils down to understanding the psyche of a team. This Gators defense has got a heck of a lot of fighters on it, and those kids strap it up to do their job every down the way their coach asks them to. But, this is a team that hasn't been on the field with a chance to win in the final minutes of the fourth in its previous two contests. Give those defensive guys a little boost, kick the field goal and show them that this offense is trying to pull its own weight.
Florida's got a week off now. They have to find a way to consistently move the football against a Georgia defense that has come on strong. Between the quarterback situation and the lack of reliable weapons, Charlie Weis will have his hands full, but the team is talented enough to make this game interesting. Getting on the scoreboard is the name of the game, and whether it is field goal or the preferred touchdown, every shred of success that Florida gets will put a little confidence in the kids.