Ask Alligator Army: On Brent Pease's "vanilla" Florida offense, the Miami series, and more

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Brent Pease has to defend his offense because it's not what Florida fans want, but that doesn't make it ineffective. That, and more responses to reader questions, in today's Ask Alligator Army.

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Because we are Florida fans, and we are spoiled by two decades of great, thrilling offenses that powered championship teams, the dominant narrative after Florida's 24-6 win over Toledo was "WHERE ARE MY POINTS?" And so poor Brent Pease, a guy whose offense was pretty good in 2012, was made to answer questions about how "vanilla" it was on Tuesday, because Gators fans are forever in the thrall of Spurrier-era urges to hang half a hundred.

Even Chris Harry of GatorZone called bullshit on some of Pease's remarks on not knowing what people want, but he also explained what Team Speed Kills' Year2, a fellow Florida fan, accurately noted today: This is not the Florida offense we grew to love. Will Muschamp wants a ball-controlling, mistake-avoiding, soul-crushing Wehrmacht, and he couldn't give a damn if it comes with a Luftwaffe; Pease, whose creativity with both the ground game and the aerial attack helped get him hired at Florida, has mostly acceded to those wishes, though Muschamp, as early as the wake of last year's opener, admitted to needing to give Pease "more latitude."

Pease got some of that latitude — I don't know if Florida would've run half the exotic formations and options it ran in 2012 without Muschamp trusting Pease pretty implicitly — but he has also exercised it on the ground, with Florida setting a new post-Spurrier low for pass attempts a season ago. It worked, mostly, as Florida ran the ball down the throats of LSU and Florida State, but that's because Florida had the personnel for a powerful running game; Florida lacked the personnel to pass effectively, in its receiving corps and at both tackle positions at least, and so it struggled when it had to turn to the pass against Georgia and Louisville.

Saturday's gameplan was textbook for this offense: Few risks were taken, and those that were carried minimal risk. This sits poorly with Florida fans, who will take risks and picks over game management, shootouts over shutdowns, and Rex Grossmans over A.J. McCarrons, but that discontent unfairly colors the facts — which look good even without nuanced perspective.

Florida had two 80-yard touchdown drives by halftime on Saturday, more than it had in any game in 2012, and had a 17-3 halftime lead that would have been Florida's third-biggest in 2012, behind only the turnover-aided 24-0 lead over Kentucky and the turnover-aided 21-6 lead over South Carolina. Jeff Driskel's 77.3 percent completion percentage ranks third among his games with 10 or more pass attempts, and the 81.8 percent rate he would've posted without Solomon Patton's drop would be his most accurate performance ever. Mack Brown, who is the second-most talented running back on Florida's roster at best, still had 97 yards by halftime. Trey Burton set his new high for receiving yards with 69, which would've been the fourth-highest total for receiving yards by a Florida player in 2012. Florida could've scored at least two more touchdowns fairly easily, were it not for a dubious holding penalty wiping out a Patton reverse for a score and Florida's second-team offense not hurrying up on the game's final drive, and probably could have pressed for a score with three timeouts before halftime, and lost three points on a missed field goal. If the score had been 34-6 at the end of the game, I doubt there would've been nearly the volume of "vanilla" complaints.

What I saw Saturday also suggests that Florida now has far better personnel for a passing game, and also that Florida's going to be even smarter on offense this year than when it committed just 15 turnovers in 13 games in 2012. Driskel took what he was given, put the ball on a receiver on 19 of his 22 throws (I'm not counting the throw to Burton that led to an incompletion or the two tipped passes among that 19; I am counting the throw that produced Patton's drop and the high throw to Quinton Dunbar in the end zone), and made correctable mistakes that led to two fumbles. But he generally had time to throw, and worked through his progression, either of which alone would be an improvement on 2012. And Florida had more receivers open and played more receivers that it trusts, plus it didn't really put a lot of talented freshmen Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood on tape for Miami to see.

That last bit, a lack of targets for Robinson and Fulwood, was part of what frustrated fans and prompted questions from reporters about the "vanilla" approach. And, yeah, running the ball 48 times, throwing short-range and intermediate passes to open receivers, and focusing on ball control isn't the most exciting way to play offense. But it worked for Florida, and had the added benefit of helping short-circuit a potent Toledo offense. Florida played the sort of game against Toledo that it did against LSU and other foes it genuinely feared in 2012, and given how Saturday could have gone — with five starters missing, multiple suspension distractions, a lot of young players making their first starts, and Toledo's wealth of offensive talent, this was arguably the hardest season opener Florida's had since beginning the 24-game winning streak it extended on Saturday — it was probably justified in doing so even before that plan worked to perfection, leaving the Rockets hopelessly behind in the middle of the first quarter.

And it worked even though Pease didn't actually go full vanilla.

Florida/Pease:

  • used Valdez Showers, who I believe had played zero snaps of offense in games or at practice at Florida before August, early and extensively, including on a jet sweep inverted veer option (0:23) and a beautifully run fake dive toss (that also set up a fake toss dive for much later in the game)
  • deployed a full house formation and a diamond formation repeatedly; produced a strange five-wide look (1:04) with one wideout to the left, trips bunch right, and Showers motioned out wide that got Dunbar a one-on-one that he'll usually win
  • kept using the wildcat
  • ran a lot of snaps with unbalanced lines
  • ran a crossing route to a true freshman wide receiver (Fulwood) for a first down (5:00)
  • used the unbalanced line to absolute perfection on Brown's second touchdown
  • used whatever formation it is that you see at 6:19
  • flashed a little of what the best read option quarterback in the SEC not named Connor Shaw can do
  • brought Patton on a reverse from a speed option look (9:28) that is very much not boring, should have scored a touchdown, and absolutely will score a touchdown at some point this year
  • drove down the field when kneeling down would have been just fine at game's end

Yes, Florida's coaching staff likes scoring points, but it knows it needs only one more than the other team scores. Yes, Pease wants to be creative, but he is being creative on the ground, and his comments about not needing to do flashy things to earn his "guru card" wash with his willingness to build a strong, steady offense. Yes, Florida's firepower isn't quite at the peaks of the past 20 years, but it's far closer than last year.

And, yes, I like vanilla ice cream, but I add sprinkles and syrup and stuff to it. So did Brent Pease.

I would very much like this series to continue for selfish reasons — I just want to see more Miami games, as I didn't have a ticket to the 2008 game and was just approaching puberty in 2002 and 2003. I think a lot of younger Florida fans, who never got to see a great Miami team and a great Florida team play (2002 was the closest thing to that, and Florida's 2002 team was coached by Ron Zook), would like to see the rivalry continue in some fashion. I think older fans might be just as happy to not have to deal with the headaches of going to Miami for a game and dealing with Miami fans, and I'm sure Florida's leadership would like to not have to deal with having to do the logistics and math necessary to make the rivalry regularly viable.

But I'd be curious to hear this from more of the Alligator Army readership in the comments. Do y'all want to find a way to keep playing Miami, or is it more hassle than it's worth?

Florida's defense is well ahead of schedule. The loss of all-everything tackle Sharrif Floyd could have left a big hole in the middle, but Dominique Easley and Leon Orr look very much capable of doing a lot of what Reef did, and Neiron Ball was excellent as a middle linebacker last week; with his performance and Antonio Morrison's return, I'm a lot more confident that Florida will be okay up the middle, which is where I thought most of its problems would begin.

And on the perimeter, where I thought Florida would be very good, I think the Gators might just be great. There are four corners I have a lot of confidence in — Roberson, Purifoy, Watkins, and Hargreaves — and they're going to be able to press and compete with receivers pretty frequently because of an improved pass rush led by Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell. Florida was nearly impossible to throw on last year with Fowler still learning the ropes, Powell sidelined by injury, a relatively conservative approach to line play that is very different from Brad Lawing's philosophy, and a thinner secondary. There's a lot more depth and talent around now, and the significant losses in experience Florida had in the offseason on defense (multi-year starters who entered the NFL Draft and/or graduated: Jon Bostic, Matt Elam, Josh Evans, Floyd, Omar Hunter, and Jelani Jenkins) didn't produce any glaring flaws against Toledo.

And, yes, of course, it's Toledo. But the Rockets had the personnel and the short passing game to trouble Florida's defense, just like teams did with quick receivers in 2012, and they just never got it going. I'm trying to be cautiously optimistic that what I saw wasn't just through orange-and-blue glasses (tidbit: I forgot my sunglasses because I'm a moron), but a good showing against a very good Miami offense may get me to throw caution to the wind.

And here's where my optimism may either be dented or deepened. Miami's line is good, old, and huge, and played very well last weekend in steamrolling Florida Atlantic for more than 300 rushing yards. Some of those came from Duke Johnson's genius in space, of course, but Ereck Flowers, Seantrel Henderson, Brandon Linder, and Shane McDermott had a lot to do with the Hurricanes' big day.

If Easley, Orr, Fowler, and Jonathan Bullard can win battles up front and force Miami to run to the outside, that may swing this game by itself: Johnson's a celestial talent, especially when heading for the edge, but Florida's excellent at setting the edge in run defense, and Antonio Morrison's return will only make the Gators better. And Florida getting a pass rush on Stephen Morris would likely do plenty to stop Miami's bomb-happy passing game.

Without having watching Miami's game, I think Florida has a very slight edge up front, but I could be swayed a little either way, to a solid Florida edge or a slight Miami edge, depending on what I see.

Florida released the same exact depth chart for its secondary this week as it did last week, and so I don't expect a radical change back there. Loucheiz Purifoy being eligible means we'll see more of him, but he and Jaylen Watkins may well rotate at one cornerback spot, and Vernon Hargreaves III's rapid development gives Florida more depth if it wants to use Purifoy on offense against Miami. I would feel more comfortable with the quicker Hargreaves at nickel than Brian Poole, but Poole's an older, stronger player, and Florida may like his physicality better for defending a Miami offense that puts players in space.

Cody Riggs and Marcus Maye should be expected to start at safety except in the case of injury, and I was especially impressed with Riggs, who showed good pursuit all over the field. Florida can also slide Riggs, who has very good cover skills for a safety after three years spent at corner, onto receivers, instead of having him play zone.

In any case, I wouldn't be too worried about Florida's secondary. Toledo rarely dared to throw on it, settling for underneath routes, and still managed to throw three passes that could've been picks, including one that hit Roberson in the hands. Morris is a better passer than Toledo's Terrance Owens, but he's been known to throw picks (19 in his career, though just seven in 2012).

Last week in this space, I was asked about whether we were underestimating Mack Brown. My answer, in part:

Yeah, we probably are. Brown wasn't chopped liver coming to Florida; he just got stuck in the same Charlie Weis trap — utilizing Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey to the detriment of other talents — that Mike Gillislee did in 2011, and stuck behind Rainey and the bigger, stronger Jones in 2012.

Could Brown, given 12 starts behind a line that is good to very good, run for 1,000 yards? I don't think so. Could he run for 750, or 800? Yeah, probably. I don't think he's without the talent one needs to get between four and five yards per carry reliably against most teams.

It was just one game, and one game against an underwhelming defense, but Brown looked just about like I pegged him against Toledo, and was definitely the most workhorse-y (bellcow-ish?) of the running backs Florida used. But I think it would take a relapse or another injury for Brown to move past Jones, who is faster, bigger, stronger, and a better receiver when at 100 percent. Brown's best hope, I believe, is being the solid second-stringer all year, and running for the 600-800 yards that might bring.

I think a lot of Florida fans will make the trip, and a lot of Miami fans will scalp their most valuable tickets of the year (Miami plays Florida State at home, too, but this game's a limited time only thing, obviously on the road) to them, but I don't know if it'll be enough to get Sun Life past 60-40 Miami fans. I do know that tons of South Florida fans think that it'll be a Florida fan-filled stadium.

As for the second question: I suspect we will have an answer in the affirmative by 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.

As tempting as it is to say "Ask again in January," I think the real answer is "Better than 2013, because what couldn't be?" (Seriously, though, ask again in January.)

No, not yet. 2012's was. This defense could potentially be better than that one if the line gets pressure and the secondary starts ballhawking, but that 2012 defense was elite, and it's going to take a lot to live up to it.

I prefer the 2008 championship, because I lived through more of it. I was a sophomore at UF then, and though I didn't have tickets ("When I was your age, kiddo, the student ticket lottery was hard to win!"), I watched virtually every second of every game. (Long-time Alligator Army readers may remember a discussion in the comments about why I missed part of one of those games.) That team was more fun than the 2006 version, with a fuller sense of how to use Percy Harvin and an offense that could barely be stopped, and it thrashed Miami (26-3), LSU (51-21), Georgia (49-10), South Carolina (56-6), and Florida State (45-14) and beat both a very good Alabama team and a great Oklahoma team that year, losing one game by one point on the way and getting an all-time great Florida football moment out of it. (I saw "The Promise" live, and knew right then that something special had just happened.) I don't think there's a good argument that the 2006 Gators were better than the 2008 Gators, either.

But 2006's Florida team had as much of a Cinderella run as a team can in college football. It needed timely excellence from Tim Tebow to beat Tennessee and LSU, and muddled through its game against Georgia, and needed an all-time great game from Jarvis Moss to stave off South Carolina, and fully clicked on offense in about four of the 14 games it played. However, those Gators put together the best championship game performance by an SEC team to date in pummeling Ohio State, and began the SEC's current reign, and had Reggie Nelson's brilliance and Chris Leak's redemption and Tebow's emergence and the magic of walloping the presumed best team in college football when it mattered most. I can understand why people would prefer 2006.

I just think most Gators prefer 2008.

I hope not. Duke Johnson would probably be really good at flag football.

Star-divide

Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.

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