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September 20, 2008

Defense helps Florida dominate Tennessee

Florida 30, Tennessee 6: Box score | Recap

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. Florida finally is winning because of its defense rather than in spite of it. Whether that trend continues may be the determining factor in whether the Gators win the SEC.

Florida's defense continued its overachieving ways Saturday in a 30-6 victory over Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. Three games into the season, the Florida defense has scored as many touchdowns (two) as it has allowed.

"We just made a statement that the tradition of Florida defense is back," linebacker Brandon Spikes said. "We're going to play well week in and week out and just try to get the job done and get the ball back to our dynamic offense."

The Florida defense has come a long way in the past year, which bodes well for UF's chances of winning its second national title in the past three seasons.

Every BCS national champion this decade has ranked among the nation's top 10 teams in scoring defense or total defense. Florida ranked sixth in both categories during its 2006 championship season.

The Gators slipped to 41st in total defense and 46th in scoring defense while going 9-4 last season. They gave up 32.8 points per game in their losses.

"(We were) very embarrassed," Spikes said. "I had an opportunity to be here in '06 and watched those guys play. They played with a lot of passion and relentless effort. Last year we had a lot of younger guys who didn't really know what to expect. After that experience we lost four games and a lot of it was on the defense we took it as a challenge. We wanted to get better."

There wasn't much reason to expect Florida's defense to fare better this year. During the offseason, the Gators lost their top pass rusher (first-round draft pick Derrick Harvey), there was a lack of experienced tackles and potential starting strong safety Dorian Munroe suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Florida took a 17-0 lead in the first 10 minutes and coasted to the victory over Tennessee, the Gators' fourth in a row in the annual series. The Volunteers outgained Florida 258-243, but they turned the ball over twice after driving to Florida's 1 once on a fumble, once on an interception.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow's numbers weren't spectacular, but his two touchdown passes were things of beauty. He did his patented "jump pass" to fire a 2-yard completion to Aaron Hernandez that capped Florida's first drive. Tebow also connected with Percy Harvin in the left corner of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown in the third quarter that removed any doubt about the outcome.
Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins was listed as a third-stringer on the Gators' depth chart, but he made two big plays. Jenkins a true freshman who enrolled early to go through spring practice forced a Montario Hardesty fumble on Tennessee's first drive to set up a field goal and picked off a pass in the end zone in the final minute of the first half.
Florida returned the opening kickoff into Tennessee territory. Florida faced third-and-8 from Tennessee's 30 when Tebow threw a shuttle pass to Hernandez, who eluded linebacker Rico McCoy and ran for a 13-yard gain. Hernandez caught his 2-yard touchdown pass three plays later, and the Gators led the rest of the way.
There weren't too many. Florida reserve linebacker John Jones was hurt on a Tennessee kickoff return in the fourth quarter.
This marked Tennessee running backs coach Stan Drayton's first game against his former team. Drayton coached running backs at Florida the past three seasons. Florida's victory allowed the Gators to tie the all-time series 19-19. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer fell to 5-12 against Florida. Florida coach Urban Meyer joined Steve Spurrier as the only coaches in the nation to defeat a Fulmer-coached Tennessee team in four consecutive seasons. Spurrier led Florida to five consecutive wins over Tennessee in the mid-1990s. ... Florida hasn't allowed a touchdown in the first half this season. Florida has outscored Tennessee 54-6 over the past five quarters. The Gators scored 24 consecutive points in the final period of a 59-20 victory over the Vols last season. Florida's Brandon James tied Jacquez Green's school record by scoring on a punt return for the fourth time in his career. James' 78-yard return gave the Gators a 17-0 lead. He also scored on an 83-yard punt return against Tennessee last season. It was James' second return for a score this season; he also took one back against Hawaii in the opener.

"If you're a soft outfit, adversity breaks you apart," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "If you're a tough outfit, it makes you come together."

The Gators chose the latter option.

Florida's starting lineup on defense Saturday featured seven sophomores and no seniors, but the Gators' poise doesn't reflect their inexperience. They're forcing mistakes instead of making them. The Gators were tied for the NCAA in turnover margin before they produced three takeaways against Tennessee. Two of the turnovers came after Tennessee had driven to Florida's 1.

"Our defense is based on taking the ball away and creating turnovers so we can get the ball in the offense's hands, so they can score points and be a high-scoring offense," said Florida freshman cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who forced a fumble and picked off a pass Saturday.

Florida's defensive statistics are hard to believe and even harder to trust. As good as Florida has looked so far this season, it's too early to say the Gators have a championship-caliber defense.

Florida opened the season against a Hawaii team that had to replace record-setting quarterback Colt Brennan and virtually its entire receiving corps from the team that reached the Sugar Bowl last season. The Gators followed that up by beating a Miami team whose quarterback, Robert Marve, was making his college debut.

If Saturday's game represented the Florida defense's first real test, Tennessee may as well have handed the Gators all the answers before the opening kickoff.

Florida led 17-0 by the time either team snapped the ball in Gators territory. The Volunteers actually outgained Florida 258-243, but the Volunteers turned the ball over or made mental mistakes whenever they threatened to get back into the game.

"I felt like we moved the ball pretty well," Tennessee center Josh McNeil said. "We just didn't capitalize. They didn't show me anything that they didn't show last year. They're a good football team with great speed that plays good fundamentals."

For the third time in as many games, Florida's offense failed to show its expected explosiveness. Count quarterback Jonathan Crompton as a Vol who wasn't impressed by the Gators' offense.

"We should have won the ballgame in my opinion," he said. "We gave up 14 points in the red zone, and they scored seven points off turnovers."

Instead of dominating the Vols, Florida employed a bend-but-don't-break defense that worked just fine against Tennessee's mistake-prone offense. Tennessee's first red-zone turnover wasn't even forced. Crompton fumbled the ball before attempting a handoff.

But there's a funny thing about bend-but-don't-break defenses. Sooner or later, they usually break.

It didn't happen Saturday. It might not happen the next two weeks, against Ole Miss and Arkansas. Then, though, Florida plays host to LSU, and Georgia is the opponent on Nov. 1. The last time LSU faced Florida, the Tigers went 5-for-5 on fourth-down conversions to rally for a 28-24 victory last season that exposed the Gators' defensive shortcomings.

"We're very humble," Spikes said. "The sky's the limit, but we've still got to take steps. There's always room for improvement."

By the time LSU leaves the Swamp, we should have a much better idea about whether Florida's defense has regained its 2006 championship form.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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