Campus Corner

Get to know Missouri’s foe: Tigers should beware of the Gator defense’s bite

Updated: 2013-10-17T19:17:32Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

Missouri hopes to buck its recent trend of following up wins against top 10 teams by immediately thudding back to earth the next game.

That history, the Tigers are 0-3 in the game after winning “the big game,” was chronicled here.

It’s worth pointing out that Missouri’s losses in this very situation under coach Gary Pinkel came in tough games — at No. 14 Nebraska in 2010, against No. 9 Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game and at No. 1 Oklahoma in 2003.

Of course, No. 22 Florida is no slouch, much like those past opponents.

The Gators’ defense ranks third in the nation, allowing 235.3 yards per game. Florida also ranks second in passing efficiency defense (85.52), third passing defense (149.0) and fourth in scoring defense (13.0) and run defense (83.3).

In other words, backup quarterback Maty Mauk, who takes over for injured starter James Franklin, will get baptized by fire.

We asked Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel to help us dig a little deeper into No. 14 Missouri’s showdown against the Gators, which kicks off at 11:21 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Columbia. The game will air in the Kansas City area on KSMO (Ch. 62).

Be sure to read Thompson’s pregame coverage and follow him on Twitter.

Q: What makes Florida’s defense so ridiculously good? I’ve heard they are physical and all the clichés about getting after the ball, but who are the players that make it hum? And how are the Gators so good against both the run and pass?

A: The one constant with Florida’s sustained defensive excellence is coach Will Muschamp. The Gators opened the season eight new starters, a new defensive coordinator, defensive line coach and outside linebackers coach. Among those replaced were four current NFL starters. But Florida’s defense continues to set the tone for the Gators and ranks among the nation’s best units.

The Gators, however, are not the same defense without star defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who tore his ACL during a Sept. 24 practice. Easley’s loss was glaring during last week’s 17-6 loss at LSU. The Tigers ran for 175 yards against the SEC’s top-ranked run defense, or more than opponents amassed in three combined games with Easley in the middle. But Florida still have more talent than most defenses and much more than any in the secondary, where four players surely will end up playing in the NFL.

Most impressive among them has been first-year freshman Vernon Hargreaves III. The nation’s top cornerback recruit in 2013, Hargreaves leads Florida with three interceptions and five pass break-ups. Another rising star has been defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who leads the Gators with seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, and two forced fumbles. Fowler is drawing so much attention, though, he is going to need another pass rusher to get involved at Missouri. The Gators failed to sack or even record a quarterback hurry on LSU’s Zach Mettenberger.

Muschamp’s defensive system is one of the best in the college game, and his halftime adjustments might be without peer. But losing Easley last month and so many top players from 2012 likely will factor into future games against the SEC’s top offenses.

Q: How much of a blow is running back Matt Jones’ injury to the offense? Who gets the carries he would have received?

A: Jones has the most physical tools of any Florida tailback. But the 6-foot-2, 226-pound sophomore rarely hit his stride this season after he was stricken by a viral infection in late July. Jones missed preseason camp and the season opener before he delivered two sub-par performances against Miami and Tennessee. Jones, who fumbled in each of those games, bounced back with a career-high 176 rushing yards at Kentucky. Jones would not repeat that kind of performance prior to tearing his meniscus two games later at LSU.

Expected to fill the void left by 1,000-yard rusher Mike Gillislee, Jones finished his sophomore season with 340 yards on 91 carries (3.7 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. He gained 17 yards on four carries at LSU, and played just six snaps against the Tigers.

The Gators now ask highly touted freshman Kelvin Taylor to share the workload with redshirt junior Mack Brown. Brown is a dependable back, but Taylor has the pedigree to be something more. The son of former Gators and NFL star Fred Taylor, Kelvin Taylor scored a Florida high school record 191 touchdowns and was Florida’s highest-rated offensive recruit.

Taylor had not carried the ball for two games prior to the LSU game, but stepped in to rush for 51 yards on 10 carries. He had runs of 10, 11 and 14 yards for a team with just 30 runs of 10 yards or longer in six games. Last year, Florida had 90 runs of that distance. If Taylor can build on Saturday’s performance, the Gators run game could weather the loss of Jones.

Q: There’s a feeling around Missouri that the Tigers probably should have won in The Swamp last year. Ironically, the belief was a healthy James Franklin would have made the difference. Do the Gators feel the same way — that they got a little lucky last season? Or is the general sense that Florida should beat Missouri based on reputation?

A: Florida’s 14-7 win against Missouri in the Swamp was one of the Gators hardest-fought wins in 2013. It took four interceptions from James Franklin for Florida to hold on against a Missouri team that took some serious lumps during its first season in the SEC. Franklin, one of the Big 12’s breakout stars in 2011, had battled injuries all season and clearly was rusty. But the Gators were reeling from a disheartening loss a week earlier to Georgia. Florida committed six turnovers against the Bulldogs to essentially cough up a chance for the SEC East title.

Florida needed an interception in the end-zone to escape with a win last November, a theme that was repeated a week later in a come-from-behind against Sun Belt Conference foe Louisiana-Lafayette. The circumstances of this year’s rematch have some similarities to a season ago. Franklin is injured (and out this time) and the Gators are coming off a disappointing loss, this time at LSU. But Florida (4-2, 3-1 SEC) will be fighting for its season against an unbeaten Missouri team riding high after its upset win at Georgia. Unlike a season ago, both teams will be motivated and have plenty at stake. The Tigers will not catch the Gators snoozing this Saturday.

Q: Quarterback Tyler Murphy struggled against LSU, completing 15 of 27 passes for only 115 yards. How do you think he’ll bounce back? And how leery are the Gators of Missouri’s pass rush?

A: Murphy had not thrown a college pass until he came off the bench to guide the Gators to a 31-17 win Sept. 21 against Tennessee. For three games, Murphy, a redshirt junior, was unflappable, accurate and as good a story as there was in college football. Last week at LSU, Murphy looked like a back-up with limited big-game experience, largely because of the Gators’ poor pass protection. Murphy had been sacked three times in three games, but the Tigers finished with four sacks and five quarterback hurries. LSU also batted down three passes and dropped two sure interceptions on ill-advised throws by Murphy when under extreme duress.

The Gators’ ability to protect Murphy at Missouri could be the key. The Tigers have two of the SEC’s best defensive ends, Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, and are second in the SEC with 17 sacks. Sam has six sacks alone and will test Florida left tackle D.J. Humphries after a rough outing at LSU. On the Gators’ final drive, Humphries had two false-start penalties to end of a long day during which Florida failed to score a touchdown for the first time in 12 games. Humphries and his fellow offensive linemen have the LSU loss motivating them this week. Missouri’s defensive front will test the Gators’ resolve on Saturday.

Q: Obviously, Florida has played in a lot of hostile environments. What is the Gators’ and their fans’ expectation for Saturday’s game? Do they expect the atmosphere at Memorial Stadium to be sufficiently hostile or is there no concern about the Tigers’ crowd?

A: Missouri’s fans will be excited and ready to cheer on their unbeaten Tigers. But while Memorial Stadium is no stranger to big games, dating to a 2010 upset of No. 3 Oklahoma, the Gators have seen and heard it all before. After all, Florida did just travel to LSU to play in Tiger Stadium (capacity 92,500). The Tigers’ wide receiving corps and pass rush, among other things, will have the Gators’ attention much more than a crowd in the SEC’s 10th-largest stadium (capacity 71,009). The biggest home-field advantage for Mizzou against a team loaded with Florida natives might be the weather, if temperatures were to dip into the 40s.

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.

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