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October 18, 2010

Florida offense still searching for an identity

Of all the things that bothered Florida coach Urban Meyer about his team's 10-7 homecoming loss to Mississippi State on Saturday night, one sentence from Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen should have irked him the most.

"This is not an upset," Mullen told reporters afterward. "Our team expected to win this football game."

Despite what Mullen said, it was an upset. But that Mississippi State pulled it off despite not scoring after the first quarter shows the depths to which Florida has sunk one season after going 13-1 and two seasons after winning their second national title in three years.

Mullen and his offensive staff showed such disdain for Florida's offense Saturday night that the Bulldogs attempted just nine passes total and just one -- one -- after the 13:22 mark of the second quarter. That one attempt was a shovel pass in the fourth quarter. Mullen evidently realized that as long as Mississippi State didn't make any offensive mistakes -- and if you've seen Mississippi State attempt to pass, you know mistakes are bound to happen -- it was going to win the game.

Florida finished with 361 yards of offense, its third-highest total of the season. But the longest play was a 31-yard option run by wide receiver Omarius Hines; there also was a 23-yard pass from John Brantley to wide receiver Frankie Hammond Jr., but that was it for plays that covered at least 20 yards.

Florida used to routinely have 20-yard plays. Now, the Gators have to grind it out to score, and anybody who has seen the Gators -- including, presumably, opposing coaches who watch film -- knows that, invariably, they will make a mistake that causes a drive to stall.

Florida threw it 39 times and ran it 35 Saturday, relatively good balance until you realize 14 of the passing attempts came on Florida's last, desperate drive, which ended when punter Chas Henry, forced to do double-duty as the kicker because of an injury to Caleb Sturgis, was wide right on a 42-yard attempt with four seconds left.

The Gators seem hell-bent on continuing to run their spread-option attack, though anyone who has seen the Gators play -- including, presumably, opposing coaches who watch film -- knows that Brantley is ill-suited for that style of offense. He simply is not a threat running the ball. He is a dropback passer, one who would have fit in at Florida when Steve Spurrier or even Ron Zook was patrolling the sideline in Gainesville.

Yes, Meyer and Florida won the national title in 2006 with Chris Leak -- equally ill-suited to the spread-option offense -- at quarterback. But that Florida team had a tremendous defense and some offensive playmakers. This season's defense is not tremendous, which became apparent again when Florida could not get a one-dimensional Mississippi State offense off the field. And when speedy running back Jeff Demps is banged-up, as he has been for the past three weeks, this season's Gators have no proven offensive playmakers.

Florida's lone touchdown came on a 5-yard run by Hines off an option pitch on the Gators' opening drive of the third quarter, and it came with true freshman Trey Burton at quarterback. Burton is a great fit for the option component of the spread. But his passing has a long way to go; he has attempted just two passes this season and one was picked off, when he tried an ill-advised jump pass against Alabama.

Florida's lack of an offensive identity has meant constant shuffling at quarterback, from Brantley to Burton back to Brantley, frequently in three-play stretches. Burton plays numerous positions: wide receiver, fullback, tight end and H-back in addition to quarterback. When Burton is at quarterback, Brantley remains on the field. That makes sense, in a way, because when both are on the field, defenses can't make situational substitutions. The flipside, though, is that if Burton is at quarterback, it's going to be a run, so even if defenses can't substitute, they know what's coming.

Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio is in his second season on the job, and he has received an avalanche of criticism for the offense's play. His playcalling definitely is an issue, but it's nave to assume he has total control of the offense; this is Meyer's offense as much as anybody's. Still, Addazio deserves criticism, especially for the pitiful play of the offensive line because he doubles as the line coach.

The unit returned four starters and was expected to be one of the four or five best lines in the nation as well as the team's strength. But it hasn't gotten any consistent push in the running game and has had all sorts of trouble picking up the blitz. One reason Florida seems reluctant to throw downfield is that Brantley often is running for his life, even though he lines up in the shotgun.

"We're not very good right now," Meyer told reporters after Saturday night's loss.

Florida is off this weekend, and Meyer also said there would be changes made to the offense during the bye week. He didn't discuss specifics but did say, "We have to be able to run the ball. ... We have to have a running game."

As lethargic as Florida (4-3) has been, the Gators still control their fate in the SEC East. They beat Tennessee and blasted Kentucky, and still have Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina remaining in league play (there also are non-conference games remaining against Appalachian State and Florida State). But unless the offense turns it around quickly, this is a team that easily could finish 7-5 or even 6-6.

Considering Florida was a combined 26-2 in the past two seasons, it has been a precipitous fall from grace. Truthfully, unless the offense picks up and a decision is made as to how to best use the quarterbacks, the defense will be under the gun too often again next season.

These were over early
Boise State outgained San Jose State 529-93 and had 32 first downs to the Spartans' five. Boise led 41-0 at halftime before taking its foot off the gas and winning 48-0.

Virginia Tech had an even more productive first half, building a 49-14 halftime lead on Wake Forest en route to a 52-21 win. The Hokies had 38 first downs to Wake's nine. The weirdest stat of all? Wake's Josh Harris rushed for 238 yards and two TDs on 20 carries; his scores came on runs of 33 and 87 yards.

The third FBS team to score at least 40 in the first half was USC, which led 42-0 at halftime against California en route to a 48-14 beatdown. USC had lost its past two on last-play field goals, but there were no such issues this time. Matt Barkley threw five TD passes in the first half, tying a school record for most scoring passes in a game. USC has won seven in a row over the Golden Bears. USC had 32 first downs to Cal's 10.

Grid bits
Navy scored the winning touchdown with 1:38 left in a 28-21 win over SMU -- and the Midshipmen scored it after Mustangs coach June Jones told his defense to let Navy score. "That's the first time I ever said that," Jones told reporters afterward, "but I felt that was the thing to do." SMU was able to move the ball to Navy's 41 before the clock ran out.

North Carolina scored on the first play from scrimmage -- an 81-yard pass from T.J. Yates and Dwight Jones -- and rolled to a 44-10 victory at Virginia. Big deal, right? Actually, it was the Heels' first win in Charlottesville since 1981 and snapped their 14-game road losing streak in the rivalry. In addition, UVa had won 10 of the past 12 overall in the series, which is the oldest in the South; Saturday's meeting was the 115th.

Arizona's season took a hit when starting QB Nick Foles went down with a knee injury during the Wildcats' victory over Washington State. Foles' dad told a Tucson radio station that his son's right kneecap was dislocated, which likely would knock him out for the rest of the season. But Arizona coach Mike Stoops said after the game that Foles had suffered a knee sprain and could be back in two weeks. Arizona plays host to Washington this week and travels to UCLA on Oct. 30; at the least, it would appear backup QB Matt Scott -- who was the starter early last season before being replaced by Foles -- would start in those two. Scott is athletic and a good runner, but the Wildcats' passing game likely would take a hit with him in the lineup.

Baylor QB Robert Griffin threw for 234 yards and a TD and ran for another 137 yards in guiding the Bears to a 31-25 win at Colorado. Baylor improved to 5-1 and is one win away from bowl eligibility; the Bears haven't gone bowling since 1994, when they still were a member of the Southwest Conference. Baylor plays Kansas State this week, then finishes with Texas, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma.

Iowa State has allowed 158 points and 1,773 yards -- 1,078 through the air -- in its past three games. The Cyclones beat Texas Tech 52-38 on Oct. 2, but since then, they've been mauled 68-27 by Utah and eviscerated 52-0 by Oklahoma. They've surrendered 11 TD passes in the three games after giving up just two in their first four games.

TCU routed BYU 31-3, meaning the Horned Frogs have won the past three with the Cougars by a combined 101-17. BYU had 14 yards of total offense in the first half and finished with 147. TCU has allowed three points in its past three games.

You have to feel for Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers carried a 25-game losing streak -- the nation's longest -- into their home game against Louisiana-Monroe, but led 24-7 going into the fourth quarter. It then went horribly awry. ULM scored four touchdowns in the period to come away with a 35-30 win. The clincher was a 55-yard interception return for a score that made it 35-24 with two minutes left. That was Western's only turnover of the game. "We didn't finish, and part of that's coaching," Western coach Willie Taggart told reporters afterward. "Offensively we didn't get it done, and I think as a football team we were in uncharted waters. We had a game that we were up in, and we didn't handle it well at all. That's part of a growing process for a football team that hasn't won in a while."

Meanwhile, Eastern Michigan owned the nation's second-longest losing streak (18 games) going into play Saturday, but the Eagles prevailed 41-38 over host Ball State in overtime. EMU trailed 28-7 in the second quarter before rallying behind QB Alex Gillett, who threw for 225 yards and three scores and ran for 189 yards and two more TDs. It was the first head-coaching win for Ron English, whose team was 0-12 last season.

Another MAC team that deserves mention is Miami, which is 4-3 after finishing 1-11 last season. Second-year coach Mike Haywood, a former Notre Dame assistant, has his team 3-0 in league play; the losses have come to three Big Six schools -- Cincinnati, Florida and Missouri. The rushing attack is suspect, but QB Zac Dysert is the best at his position in the league, there is a nice group of receivers and the run defense has been good. The RedHawks play host to Ohio this Saturday; a win there, and it's likely the MAC East title would be on the line when Temple visits for the regular-season finale on Nov. 23.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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