Grading the Florida at Mississippi State game

By Adam Silverstein
October 25, 2009

Each week following a Florida Gators game, ONLY GATORS Get Out Alive will grade the team position-by-position based on each unit’s performance. This week, we look at how the Gators fared against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Earning a “B” grade last week for his tenacity and leadership on the game-winning drive, Tim Tebow was lucky that his two fumbles did not lead to worse results. This week, I cannot be as lax. Whether it is partially the fault of his receivers not getting open or even the bad play calling, Tebow must rise above any deficiencies and take matters into his own hands. What we saw this week was a Tebow who looked tentative to tuck and run, consistently made bad decisions and threw two interceptions for touchdowns (even if one was on a tipped ball). Since Tebow took over as the starter, there have only been two games in his entire career he did not pass for a touchdown. Both times were this season – against the Tennessee Volunteers and Saturday night. The Gators won and Tebow is the leader, but his refusal to speak to the press following the game should tell you how poorly even he felt he played.

Everyone who touched the ball including Chris Rainey, Emmanuel Moody and Brandon James played great on the ground. (Jeff Demps struggled but also only got five carries before injuring his neck.) Rainey took 12 carries for 92 yards, Moody added 32 yards on five runs and James added 28 yards on two of his own. The only thing you could ask from this unit would be to get Moody the ball more – but that is not the players’ choice. Superb effort all-around.

I will put this as simply as possible: Riley Cooper is the only wide receiver on this team. Well, he’s the only one making any impact when he’s on the field. Even if Deonte Thompson does have talent – we are not seeing it. David Nelson is good for the occasional first down catch but that’s about it. In truth, the only thing this unit does well each week is block. Apparently the youngsters are still not ready (which, to Urban Meyer, means they are not pass blocking well enough). It is time to get someone like Frankie Hammond, Jr. going or the previous explosiveness of the Florida offense will be absolutely lost.

Aaron Hernandez once again led the Gators in receptions, but only amassed 32 yards on the evening. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen seemed to make it a point to neutralize Hernandez – considering he is the Gators’ only real receiving threat – and it worked. He has been playing great all season, so he gets a bit of a pass from me here. Still not the performance we need from one of the best tight ends in college football.

Again, just like last week, this unit played respectable – but not well enough. It was able to help in the running game but continued to lack in giving Tebow space and often left him rushed, sometimes forcing bad throws and poor decisions. They earned a C+ last week and will get the same grade this week. No improvement from what I saw.

Three sacks for Carlos Dunlap, another for Jermaine Cunningham, some solid quarterback hurries, deflected passes (which resulted in interceptions) and tackles for loss gives this unit a solid grade for back-to-back weeks. Think about this – Florida is basically on their second and third string tackles and are still doing a respectable job defending the middle. Dunlap and Cunningham are terrors on the ends. When tackles come back and the linebackers solidify, this unit will only continue to improve.

Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was dressed and standing on the sideline all night, yet the Gators linebacking corps played one of their best games of the season. The middle was a little soft, but that is what you can expect with your starter out. Dustin Doe and A.J. Jones both nabbed impressive interceptions and were bright spots on the defense. For this, I have chosen to ignore Doe’s idiotic showboating which almost should have cost him the return touchdown. I am quite sure that will not happen again…am I right, coach Strong?

My favorite defensive unit is the secondary, which means I am not only critical when it performs poorly but also generous when it plays well. Cornerback Joe Haden is simply fantastic – he will be a first round pick in the NFL Draft should he come out after this season. Janoris Jenkins rebounded big-time, but of course it was against a significantly worse quarterback and wide receivers. For limiting Mississippi State QB Tyson Lee to 145 yards (which includes one 54-yard pass), this unit did their job as far as I am concerned. Oh, and safety Major Wright added an interception after the Gators broke their 17-game interception streak last week.

When Meyer came to Florida, he instilled a mentality that special teams is the most important unit on the field game-in and game-out. By the looks of it this season, that could not be further from the truth. Kick returner James is absolutely silent. And yes, he has received his share of opportunities to make some noise. Kicker Caleb Sturgis seems to have a tendency to miss his first field goal each game. Add a missed extra point in the fourth quarter to that, and I wonder if his strong leg is enough to allow him to keep his job next week. As for the rest, the punt blocking unit (Rainey) delivered a timely block, and the coverage units did well in supporting punter Chas Henry. Had Mullen’s fake punt not led to a miscue, the Gators would have lost that possession. The punt block and punt unit saved the grade here.

The coaching staff earns this grade for Saturday’s game based on two criteria: the continued improvement and game planning of the defense and increased ball security. One could argue that Mullen had the Gators guessing at some points, and it was simply the lack of talent on his team to execute that kept them from a victory or at least a closer outcome. Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong continues to prove why he deserves a head coaching gig, but offensive coordinator Steve Addazio and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales (red zone play-caller) are doing a poor job replacing Mullen. How the game plans are adjusted next week will be a huge indicator of if this team has turned its struggles around or not.

Most Gators fans expected an entirely different team to take the field Saturday night, especially coming off a lackluster performance at home against the Arkansas Razorbacks one week prior. That did not happen. Instead, you saw a slightly less bad version (in some ways). The offense improved in the running game and ball security, but the passing game was weaker and Tebow threw two interceptions. The defense played very well without some defensive starters, but it also was up against a weaker opponent. As I said last week, “a win in the SEC is a win in the SEC.” And beating Mississippi State at home for the first time since 1985 – with an all-time record crowd – is worth something.

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