October 29, 2011

Brantley returns. Florida still loses


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John Brantley couldn't go through his normal pregame routine.

He couldn't take snaps from under center and then take a full drop or hand the ball off.

And he couldn't elude the pass rush.

But Florida's senior quarterback played four gut-wrenching quarters on an injured ankle in a 24-20 loss to Georgia (6-2, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday evening at EverBank Field in Jacksonville. The loss officially knocked the Gators (4-4, 2-4 SEC) out of contention in the SEC East.

"Obviously, John went -- a gutsy performance," UF head coach Will Muschamp said. "I'm very proud of him and his effort -- a guy that really laid it on the line."

Brantley suffered a bad ankle sprain just before halftime against Alabama on Oct. 1. Since then, true freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel handled the quarterback duties during a disastrous month which saw the Gators drop four games in a row for the first time since 1988.

Brantley returned to practice for the first time on Monday and did his best to get back for Saturday's game against Georgia, using the bye week to get some extra rest and treatment.

"I wanted to be back out there with the guys," Brantley said. "I miss that and as a Gators fan growing up, this is the one game you want each year."

Muschamp listed Brantley as probable throughout the week and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said the coaching staff was "cautiously optimistic" their senior signal caller would be able to play against UGA.

Brantley came out with his teammates for the first round of warm-ups during pregame, loosening up his arm and throwing to teammates in short three-step drops.

When the rest of the Gators came back out in full pads for the second round of warm-ups, Brantley stayed in the locker room, leading to speculation that his ankle wasn't ready for a full game. After the game, Brantley said they just wanted to test out his ankle without putting too much strain on it.

Named a captain for the game, Brantley came out for the coin flip in full pads and connected with Jeff Demps for a 72-yard screen play on UF's first play from scrimmage.

He finished the night 12-of-34 passing for 245 yards and one touchdown, a 31-yard touch pass to tight end Jordan Reed for a touchdown on fourth-and-19 for Florida's first score of the game.

"He's a trooper, he really is a trooper for battling through the injury and coming back and playing the entire game," center Jonotthan Harrison said. "Yes, that does decrease his mobility, but he did a good job staying in the pocket as long as the offensive line was protecting him."

The offensive line couldn't protect Brantley and his bum ankle consistently enough.

The Bulldogs sacked Brantley six times for a loss of 43 yards and forced him to throw the ball away early a handful of times.

Both Muschamp and Weis said they hoped Brantley's return would provide a psychological lift for his teammates, but no such thing transpired.

In addition to the shoddy pass protection, running back Chris Rainey dropped two passes that might have went for touchdowns and fumbled to set up Georgia on a short field. Wide receiver Frankie Hammond Jr. also fumbled to set up UGA on a short field. The Gators committed 14 penalties for 106 yards. And the defense failed to come up with big stops as the Bulldogs went 3-for-3, including a pair of touchdown passes, on fourth down.

"Maybe a lack of mental focus? I'm not sure," Harrison said. "I can't really speak for the team, I'm not sure what was each individual's issue."

Under those tough circumstances, Brantley went 2-for-14 for 19 yards in the second half.

One of the real differences in the game was how the teams took advantage of their opportunities on a short field.

Georgia had three possessions that started on Florida's side of the field. The Bulldogs turned those into two touchdowns and field goal for 17 of their 24 points.

On the other hand, UF had four possessions that started on UGA's side of the field. The Gators turned those into two punts, a field goal and a turnover on downs. All together, they ran 14 plays that netted minus-24 yards on those four drives combined.

As a result of Brantley's inability to plant hard or turn on his ankle coming out from under center, Weis decided to go with an all shotgun game plan to utilize his senior quarterback. Muschamp said the strictly shotgun approach limited UF's ability to run the football.

The Gators totaled minus-19 yards on the ground, and 34 yards not including the sacks Brantley took.

"We can't be so one dimensional," Muschamp said.

After his post game interview session, Brantley made his way to the team bus, noticeably limping the entire way.

It was a gutsy performance by the senior. And a sloppy one by his teammates.

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