Florida defense hopes it’s turned a corner as it preps for Georgia’s tough rushing attack

By Jake Winderman
November 5, 2020
Florida defense hopes it’s turned a corner as it preps for Georgia’s tough rushing attack
Football

Image Credit: Courtney Culbreath / UAA

The No. 8 Florida Gators clearly put forth their best defensive performance of the season in last Saturday’s 41-17 victory over the Missouri Tigers. Despite missing three starters in the defensive backfield and eight players in that unit overall, Florida held Missouri — a team that currently ranks sixth in the SEC in passing yards per game — to just 208 yards through the air, the fewest the Gators have given up in a game this season.

While Florida was down multiple starters and depth pieces in the secondary, the return of senior defensive tackle Kyree Campbell on the proved monumental. The Gators held the Tigers to an extremely impressive, season-low 40 yards rushing with Campbell adding a tackle for loss in his 2020 season debut. 

How elite was Florida’s run defense? Saturday was the first time the Gators held an opponent to 40 yards rushing or fewer since they gave up just 3 yards to UAB on Nov. 18, 2017. It was also the first time Florida held an SEC opponent to 40 yards rushing or fewer since the 2016 Florida-Georgia game when the Gators suffocated the Bulldogs, holding them to just 21 yards in a 24-10 win. That not only resulted in an SEC Championship Game appearance for Florida, it was also its last win over Georgia.

During the SEC teleconference this week, Gators head coach Dan Mullen explained why his team was able to post its best overall defensive performance of the season despite being off two full weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program.

“They did a great job, held them to 10 points last week, seven of [the 17] were given up by the offense, and the touchdown I think came late,” Mullen said. “I think when you watch the difference between [the Missouri game] and the first three games, you see a distinct drop in missed tackles, and you see a massive improvement of 11 guys running extremely hard to the football. Those are the things that we can control.”

While Florida’s defensive depth chart has been exceedingly thin through the first four games of the season with holes at every level due to injuries, absences and team conduct issues, Mullen said that a positive affect of the adversity faced by the group to this point is that it has allowed depth to build at every position.

“We have some new faces out there,” Mullen said. “When you don’t have spring and you have a limited training camp and limited scrimmages, you’re still trying to learn what guys do well. So what we’re trying to do defensively is say, ‘Hey, we think this guy can do this really well, we think we can play this coverage, we think we can rush this guy out of this position.’ And then they get into games and they don’t do it as well as you think, but they do other things really well. It’s just kind of learning the team to tweak to that.”

One of the new faces on Florida’s defense is redshirt sophomore linebacker Brenton Cox Jr., a transfer from Georgia who had to sit out last season per NCAA rules. Cox was a disruptive force against Missouri, racking up five total tackles, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery — one of a season-high two turnovers forced by the Gators defense.

Cox will have the opportunity to get back at his former program this Saturday after being unavailable to play the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party last season. When Cox earned the No. 1 jersey this spring despite not playing last year, you knew expectations would be high. Cox’s former head coach with the Dawgs, Kirby Smart, knows the pass rusher won’t pull any punches in Jacksonville, Florida.

“Brenton’s playing really well,” Smart said Wednesday. “He’s an explosive pass rusher. … He’s hard to block. Todd [Grantham] does a good job of putting him in situations where he gets to rush.”

Cox and Florida’s defense will face a new challenge against the offense of No. 5 Georgia. While the Gators have already played an SEC team that averages more rushing yards per game than the Dawgs (Ole Miss, 215.7 yards), they haven’t faced a team who wants to completely dominate time of possession via the run like this team. 

Georgia is currently tied for third in the SEC in rushing yards per game (175.2) and sits second in rushing attempts per game (42), trailing only Ole Miss. Remember, the Rebels’ total plays per game is skewed due its fast-paced offense. Ole Miss runs 82.0 plays per game, which ranks fourth in FBS, compared to Georgia’s 74.6 plays per game, 39th in FBS.

“They’re a running back-based offense,” Mullen said Tuesday. “They want to get the ball to their running backs. They have two receivers with 10 or more catches and a running back with 10 or more catches. … The majority of touches are going to their backs.”

Georgia’s rushing attack is led by redshirt sophomore Zamir White, one of the top running backs in the nation. White has toted the rock 90 times for 402 yards this season (4.5 ypc) with six rushing touchdowns. The Dawgs have four rushers who have at least 19 carries, and they’re averaging 4.5 yards per touch; however, White is the only one with a rushing score. Junior James Cook is the Bulldogs’ best pass-catching back and leads the backfield with 10 receptions, 173 yards receiving and one touchdown catch on the season.

Despite the team’s success on the ground, Georgia’s passing attack has been somewhat figured out over its past two games. After throwing for five touchdowns and zero interceptions in his team’s first three games, quarterback Stetson Bennett IV has tossed just two touchdowns compared to five interceptions over the last two. He’s also averaging nearly 30 fewer yards passing per game over those last two with Georgia falling by 17 to Alabama and only beating Kentucky by 11.

Regardless of Bennett’s recent shortcomings, Mullen is still preparing for a signal caller who can do more than enough to provide the Bulldogs rushing attack with an effective counterbalance.

“I think people get on him [after] he played some really good defenses,” Mullen said when describing Bennett’s recent play. “I think Kentucky’s got a good defense, Alabama’s got a good defense. He’s still able to lead them and put up a whole bunch of points. … I think he does a good job, he’s accurate with the ball, he can make the different throws and get the ball where it needs to be. You look at his numbers and his efficiency rating this year, they’re not bad for the type of offense they run.”

Florida and Georgia will kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday in the 97th edition of their rivalry game. It is the first time in series history that the Gators and Dawgs will play three straight games as top-10 opponents.

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