I caught a lot of heat for daring to question the future of Will Muschamp after the Miami loss two weeks ago. Even then, however, I defended Muschamp's ability to coach and build a defense.
I think the only reason Muschamp still has a job in Gainesville is because of that defense (and, of course, because of the 11-1 record last year it helped produce), but before you jump all over that, let me add this: It's a pretty damned good reason. There's absolutely no way in hell I would even consider calling for Muschamp's head as long as his defense keeps playing like this.
Simply put, this is one of the best Florida defenses I've ever seen. In WIll Muschamp football, the defensive players are firemen. Their job isn't to whine and complain about how much they have to work, because that's not what firemen do. Their job is to put it out, no matter how bad it's blazing. Against Tennessee, this unit was constantly called upon to douse the flames, and they answered the call every single time by either driving the Volunteers backwards or simply forcing a turnover. Not even the 2006 defense could do it quite like this.
While you can't win a game in the first quarter, you can lose it. On Saturday against Tennessee, the Gators tried their best to do that. But the defense refused to let it happen. Turnovers, one of my main issues two weeks ago, were everywhere, but each time one happened, the defense fought back and kept the game manageable for Florida.
Even star punter Kyle Christy joined in on the clown act and dropped a perfectly snapped ball to give Tennessee unbelievable field position; two plays later, Dante Fowler blew up the play and knocked the ball out. Florida recovered. Not long after, Jeff Driskel threw the final pass of his junior season- a 62 yard touchdown pass to Devaun Swafford, who unfortunately plays defensive back for Tennessee. It was a horrible decision by Driskel, and it directly gave the Vols a 7-0 lead when trying to indirectly give them a 7-0 lead on Christy's fumble didn't pan out.
The defense tried to get Florida back in the game by forcing a fumble and recovering at the Tennessee 6. Florida's offense, with new QB Tyler Murphy, promptly wasted that golden opportunity by fumbling on the first play, and though they recovered, proceeded to essentially go 3 and out and settling for a chip shot field goal.
The Tennessee turnover count is now at two. Brian Poole made it three by picking off Nathan Peterman at his own 44. After a power run by Mack Brown, Murphy hit Solomon Patton for a 52 yard touchdown. But don't be fooled by the number; it was very reminiscent of the Chris Rainey catch and run two years ago. Murphy threw a little screen, Patton caught the ball and saw that the UT defense was badly out of position, so he raced unmolested down the sideline for the touchdown to put Florida up 10-7.
But then the offense gave Tennessee another gift. They turned it over again, this time at their own 37. What's the best possible scenario you can hope for in this situation? A field goal, right? You can't expect the defense to keep them scoreless on this drive, can you? Well, that's exactly what they did, albeit not without some help from Tennessee. After a crippling offensive pass interference penalty, the Vols went backwards from there and had to punt again.
The Gators still weren't finished handing out goodies. Matt Jones lost the handle and simply dropped the ball at his own 24 yard line. The Gators' defense then forced a third and nine, during which the ball slipped out of Peterman's hand and was picked by Darius Commings, who returned it 30 yards inside Tennessee territory. Even though the interception was a freak thing, Peterman would not have thrown the ball at all in the first place were it not for heavy pressure from Antonio Morrison, so give Florida credit for that turnover as well.
After that, Florida finally realized that they had to stop screwing around on offense if they wanted to put the game away, and they promptly did that, scoring touchdowns on their next three drives (a very faint but painful reminder to Tennessee fans of the seven straight touchdown drives engineered by Danny Wuerffel back in 1995; sorry, just had to throw that in there) to ice the game. When Murphy dove into the end zone early in the fourth quarter to put the Gators up 31-10, the game was over, and I think everybody knew it, because that's when the Swamp started emptying out.
I'll be the first to credit Tyler Murphy on a job well done. He didn't play great football, but he played smart football, meaning he took care of the ball (other than taking a snap off his face mask, which can't be entirely pinned on him) and kept his cool. He didn't go for too much, but he made big plays when he needed to. That's all I've ever asked for from a Florida quarterback, even John Brantley, and I'm very proud of him for doing it.
But let's consider what would have happened without this nasty defense. Here's what happened after each Florida miscue:
-Christy's dropped snap. Tennessee's field position: Florida 15. End result: two plays, lost fumble. Total points: zero.
-Driskel's pick six. Tennessee's field position: N/A. End result: returned for a touchdown. Total points: seven.
-Florida fumble (recovered by Tennessee). Tennessee's field position: Florida 37. End result: five plays, -9 yards, punt. Total points: zero.
-Florida fumble (recovered by Tennessee). Tennessee's field position: Florida 28. End result: three plays, one yard, interception. Total points: zero.
With a defense that's even mediocre, the four Gator turnovers become four Tennessee touchdowns. In addition, all 17 of Florida's first half points came off Tennessee turnovers that left them in great field position: at Tennessee's 6 (which became a field goal), Tennessee's 40, and Florida's own 44. In other words, it very easily could have been 28-0 Tennessee at halftime.
My point is that without this defense, Tyler Murphy never would have had a chance to rally the Gators back in the first place. Murphy himself was not directly responsible for any of the turnovers, but his offensive teammates nearly dug a hole that not even Tim Tebow could have pulled the 2008 team out of. Think about it, with an average defense, the halftime score is likely 28-0 Volunteers. Do you like the 2008 team's chances of pulling out the victory in that game? How about the 1995, 1996 or 2001 teams? How many of those teams do you think could erase a 28-0 halftime deficit and win?
I have no intention of ever questioning Muschamp's job again as long as his defense keeps this up. They didn't force turnovers like this against Miami, but Dante Fowler and Dominique Easley were playing with some dangerous fire against the Vols that disrupted their entire offense. Sure, some of Tennessee's six turnovers were sort of flukish, but without heavy Gator pressure, the Vols aren't put in the position to make those types of quick decisions anyway.
And let's make one more thing clear: the Volunteers as a team are a mess, but their offensive line is a strength. That was a very good line the Gators' front seven dominated on Saturday, and while it may not be on the level of Alabama's or Georgia's, the difference between the units is not as big as many people may think it is.
At the end of the day, the offense's turnovers and penalties problems are still in dire need of being fixed. People like to blame Driskel for the turnovers, but he didn't drop the snap as he was waiting to punt, and he isn't the one who lost either fumble. It's a team wide epidemic, and it has to be corrected, though the number did decrease from 5 against Miami to 3. The penalties went down as well, but I'm not yet totally convinced that Muschamp has that problem under control (Florida committed 6 on Saturday).
But the bottom line is this: this defensive unit makes a great team of firemen. The fire was out of control against Miami, yet aside from getting burned by Philip Dorsett on one play, the defense played phenomenally, but one thing was missing: they couldn't force turnovers. That changed against Tennessee. They didn't just hose the fire down, as they did against Miami; they stomped on the embers to make absolute certain Tennessee wouldn't score by forcing clutch turnovers.
I'm sure Tyler Murphy will continue to grow and get better, but this team is going to live and die by its defense as the season goes on. And against Tennessee, the Gators survived because of it.