GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 17: Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp watches the action during the game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 17, 2011 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Florida vs. Alabama. In The Swamp. At 8 p.m. this Saturday. You should probably get excited. Here are four ways Will Muschamp's defense will try to shut down Alabama's offense.
Win First Down
In the comments about our look at Alabama's defense earlier today, someone brought up how the Tide defense can be turned inside out by winning first down. Let's define winning — as some coaches do — as allowing fewer than four yards on first down; if Alabama wants to run, it's going to find that very hard, given that the Gators have allowed 63 yards on 50 first down rushes in 2011, the best mark in the country.
Muschamp and Dan Quinn haven't had to do much scheming to produce that result, either: The Gators have been able to overwhelm offensive lines up the middle with Dominique Easley, Jaye Howard, Omar Hunter, Sharrif Floyd, and more, and have been able to chase runners down before they get to the corner with Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins flying around at the second level. Maybe the most important component to that small average, though? Florida's been up by 10 or more points after each first quarter it has played in 2011, and building a lead helps force an opponent to throw.
The Gators defense finally achieved its goal of forcing three turnovers in a game with four takeaways against Kentucky, and helped get Florida back to an 0.00 turnover margin for the year. Alabama, on the other hand, has a -0.25 turnover margin, and has been schizophrenic in compiling those numbers: -4 against Kent State, +3 against Penn State, -2 against North Texas, +2 against Arkansas. If Muschamp and Quinn's ball-hawking, fumble-forcing charges are successful, they could swing Alabama's turnover margin even more into red numbers — and swing Saturday's game for the Gators.
Force Alabama To Pass
About the best thing that can be said for Alabama's A.J. McCarron so far is this: He doesn't do much to lose games. He's thrown just two picks this season, both in the opener against Kent State, and he's taken just five sacks. He's completing 66.3% of his passes, and completed 15 of 20 throws against Arkansas. But he's not what's winning Alabama games, either; that's the Crimson Tide's running game, and more specifically Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, who have also combined for 16 of Alabama's 76 receptions in 2011.
The rest of the 'Bama receptions: 20 for Marquis Maze, far and away the leading receiver; 13 for tight ends Brad Smelley and Michael Williams; 28 combined to six other wide receivers, none of whom has more than six catches; and one to reserve tight end Brad Vogler. This is not a team that wants to pass, nor one that is great at it — especially downfield, given that Richardson and Lacy have the two longest receptions of the year for Alabama. Florida fans may recognize that sort of futility, but while John Brantley has shown flashes of being a bomber, McCarron is sort of an unknown quantity. Undoubtedly, Muschamp and Quinn know that stacking the box early to stuff Alabama's running game might be enough to force the Tide to the air, which could be right where the Gators want them.
Florida leads the nation in penalties, with 39, and is second only to Iowa State in penalties per game. To make matters worse, 11 of those penalties have been pass interference or personal foul penalties by the defense that awarded automatic first downs, and the Gators also lead the nation in first downs handed to opponents by penalty with 12. Those are bad numbers, especially given that Alabama's gotten just two first downs from penalties, tied for 104th nationally.
There's no magic bullet for penalties; either your team commits them or it doesn't. But Muschamp, a former defensive back who knows full well how crippling a pass interference penalty on third down to extend a drive can be, is no doubt telling Marcus Roberson to use his hands a little less obviously, coaching Matt Elam to avoid headhunting, and impressing the importance of being physical without manhandling a receiver. If the Gators can keep the yellow off the field on defense, it will significantly help the defense's chances of keeping Alabama short of that yellow line you see on television.
For more on the Tide, head to Roll 'Bama Roll.