Young defense, sputtering offense highlight Florida’s inability to win games comfortably

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators were in the midst of a close game against Kentucky, but Taven Bryan knew the Gators had already won.

The Wildcats’ 53-yard field-goal attempt as time expired landed short, and Florida escaped Lexington, Ky., with a 28-27 win — a victory that required 2 fourth quarter touchdowns to give Florida its only lead of the game.

Even then, though, Bryan admits the win was a little too close for comfort.

“A win’s a win,” Bryan said, “but honestly, we’d like to just dominate so people can go home.”

Two games later, Florida hasn’t figured out how to dominate its opponents.

The Gators needed a late 39-yard touchdown from Malik Davis to seal a 38-24 win over Vanderbilt on Sept. 30 after allowing the Commodores to take an early lead and stay within a touchdown for most of the game.

And then on Saturday, the Gators trailed by 14 points in the third quarter against LSU and ultimately saw their rally fall short in the 17-16 homecoming loss.

And with the way Florida’s conference schedule unfolds over the next five weeks — a home game against Texas A&M, the annual matchup with Georgia in Jacksonville and then back-to-back road contests at Missouri and South Carolina — Florida might not have a chance for a comfortable win until it hosts UAB on Nov. 18.

The problem is two-fold.

First, Florida’s young defense is allowing opponents to pounce early and then settles down as the game progresses.

Just look at the last two weeks.

The Gators anticipated a run-heavy performance from Vanderbilt paced by senior Ralph Webb but instead were treated with a pass-first approach spearheaded by quarterback Kyle Shurmur. The junior threw 2 first-half touchdowns and had Vanderbilt tied with Florida 17-17 at halftime.

One week later, Florida failed to stop LSU’s jet sweeps in the first half, which resulted in big plays and points for the Tigers. In total, LSU ran six jet sweeps for 91 yards in the first two quarters, including a 30-yard touchdown from receiver Russel Gage who ran untouched into the end zone to open scoring. Florida held the Tigers at bay in the second half.

Defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Rumph on Wednesday said the biggest problem hindering the defense — primarily the younger players — is sideline adjustments mid-game.

“It’s hard for them,” Rumph said. “They don’t take it to the field as quick, but once we sit down at halftime and they come out of halftime knowing, ‘OK. These are the adjustments. This is how they’re attacking us. This is what we need to do,’ they always seem to play better, but we’ve got to get better to the point — and I think we’re getting there — where they’re able to take their adjustments during the game.”

Second, the offense has struggled early, which results in a scramble to find something — anything — that can help remedy the problem late in games.

For a bit of clarity, Florida has scored 13 points in the first quarter through five games this season. For comparison, 11 SEC teams have scored at least 13 points in a single first quarter this season.

This has been a problem for Florida for the past seven years, dating back to the start of the Will Muschamp era. But in the prior years, Florida has had top-15 defenses to rely on to serve as the backbone of the team.

That’s not the case this year.

Heading into the Texas A&M game, Florida is 55th nationally and seventh in the SEC in total defense (373.2 yards/game allowed). The Gators are also allowing 24.2 points per game. Since 1946, Florida has only allowed an average of more than 24 points per game in a season three times: 2007 (25.5), 1971 (27.1) and 1946 (29.3).

The road isn’t getting easier, either. Georgia and Texas A&M are each averaging more than 34 points per game this season, while Missouri had a 34-point outing at Kentucky.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said.

In more ways than one.

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