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September 22, 2008

Bowden: Florida special teams delivers knockout

More Bowden: Transcript from live chat
RELATED: Week 4: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 4 Awards | FSU offense needs help

It was over in Knoxville before it began.

Florida returned the opening kickoff to Tennessee's 44 and Tim Tebow threw a touchdown pass eight plays later. Tennessee fumbled on its first possession and the Gators kicked a 39-yard field goal to extend the lead to 10-0. On its next series, Tennessee got one first down before it punted the ball to Brandon James, who brought it back 78 yards for a touchdown that made it 17-0 with 4:42 left in the first quarter.

So much for the Tennessee game plan. They were going to feed the ball to tailback Arian Foster behind the SEC's best offensive line until they wore down the Gators in the fourth quarter.

Who do they think they are, Michigan State? This baby was history after Florida's first three possessions.

All because of special teams.

If Florida is going to win the SEC and make it to the national championship game this season, it won't be because of Tim Tebow and it won't be about the improved defense. The difference-maker at Florida will be the special teams.

Nobody is doing it better right now than Urban Meyer and the Gators.

There are a lot of coaches who put a huge emphasis on the kicking game. "Beamer Ball" wasn't invented yesterday. But few schools, if any, have so much speed and talent and the willingness to use it at every single position on every single special team as Florida. Not only is Meyer getting his best athletes to willingly volunteer for special teams, he is recruiting marquee four- and five-star recruits specifically with that in mind.

Case in point: Saturday, just to make sure Tennessee didn't punt the ball away from James, who is the nation's best return man, the Gators put the nation's best athlete, Percy Harvin, back there with James.

If the Vols had kicked it out of bounds to avoid the return, they would have given Tebow, the nation's most dangerous quarterback, a short field to work with on offense.

If they had told their punter to hold on to the ball a little longer to allow his coverage people to get downfield, there's a good chance the punt would have been blocked by the nation's fastest punt-block trio of Jeffrey Demps (punt block vs. Miami), Riley Cooper and Chris Rainey. They all run sub-4.4's, along with about a dozen teammates who are used at various positions on the special teams as well.

Then there's punter Chas Henry and kicker Jonathan Phillips. Henry averages 49 yards per punt and seven of his 12 punts this year have traveled 50 or more yards including a 57-yarder against Tennessee on his lone punt of the day. Phillips, who connected on all three field-goal attempts against the Vols, is 4-of-4 on the season and 14-of-14 on PATs.

Don't think all this special-teams stuff started overnight with Meyer, either. Since he became a head coach in 2001, his teams (Bowling Green, Utah and Florida) are third nationally in blocked punts. During his four seasons at Florida, the Gators lead the nation in fewest punt-return yards allowed, and they are 6-of-6 in executing fake punts.

When it comes to special teams, Meyer appears to be playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.

RIDE YOUR HORSE

You have to give a lot of credit to Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio for not forgetting one of the most important principles in football: Put the ball in the hands of your playmaker.

The Spartans beat Notre Dame 23-7 by putting the ball in the hands of tailback Javon Ringer, who ran 39 times for 201 yards and two touchdowns. With Michigan State nursing a 16-7 lead going into the fourth quarter, Dantonio called Ringer's number all seven times on a 77-yard touchdown drive. Ringer finished it off with a 2-yard touchdown run with 2:16 left.

In this day of system offenses, too many coaches get caught up in the trendy play-calling method of making "box calls" from up in the booth after they have counted how many men are in the tackle box. Success is judged by how many times they run away from the numbers or check into a pass rather than whether they eventually put the ball into the hands of their best player.

Not so at Michigan State.

In four games this season, Ringer has averaged 35.8 carries per game and has 699 yards and 11 touchdowns. More important, the Spartans are 3-1 and look to be a serious challenger for the Big 10 crown.

ON THE MOVE AT BAYLOR

For those of you out there who want to see how the shotgun zone-read offense is supposed to be run, look no further than Baylor. The Bears may be just 2-2 under new coach Art Briles, but if you can't see the transformation that is taking place, you aren't paying attention.

Although Baylor suffered a tough loss Friday night to defending Big East co-champ Connecticut 31-28, it did not change my mind in the least that Baylor got the right man for the job. What I especially like about Briles is how quickly and effectively he has implemented the zone-read offense and brought along true freshman quarterback Robert Griffin. He may be the next great dual-threat quarterback in college football.

The formation spreads the defense out from sideline to sideline by aligning the two widest receivers as close to the sidelines as possible. In spite of all the talk about intricacies of the shotgun zone-read offense, it basically consists of three plays:

1. The halfback should be able to run the ball inside or outside to the right.
2. The quarterback should be able to fake the handoff and run the ball inside or outside to the left.
3. The quarterback should be able to fake the handoff and throw the ball vertically downfield to either of his two inside receivers.

Everything else with this offense is basically bells and whistles.

Briles' understanding of the "KISS" methodology of offensive football Keep It Simple, Stupid is something that a lot of young offensive coaches would do well to follow.

TOUGH TIMES AT RUTGERS

After losing to Navy 23-21 Saturday and starting the season 0-3, you have to wonder if Greg Schiano is second-guessing himself about now about deciding to stay at Rutgers. After going 11-2 in 2006, it was speculated that he turned down a chance to coach Miami in order to stay at Rutgers. Last season, after going 8-5, it was reported that Michigan came calling before they turned to Rich Rodriguez.

If things don't turn around dramatically for the Scarlet Knights, the season could dissolve into a disaster, and what once looked like a halo above his head will start feeling much more like a noose around his neck.

RELATED: Week 4: What We Learned | Dienhart's Week 4 Awards | FSU offense needs help

Terry Bowden is an exclusive college football columnist for Rivals.com. For more information about Terry, visit his official Web site. Send Terry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast. To read more from Terry Bowden, visit his archives.



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