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October 18, 2010

Offense searching for an identity

Of all the things that bothered Florida coach Urban Meyer about his team's 10-7 homecoming loss to Mississippi State on Saturday night, one sentence from Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen should have irked him the most.

"This is not an upset," Mullen told reporters afterward. "Our team expected to win this football game."

Despite what Mullen said, it was an upset. But that Mississippi State pulled it off despite not scoring after the first quarter shows the depths to which Florida has sunk one season after going 13-1 and two seasons after winning their second national title in three years.

Mullen and his offensive staff showed such disdain for Florida's offense Saturday night that the Bulldogs attempted just nine passes total and just one -- one -- after the 13:22 mark of the second quarter. That one attempt was a shovel pass in the fourth quarter. Mullen evidently realized that as long as Mississippi State didn't make any offensive mistakes -- and if you've seen Mississippi State attempt to pass, you know mistakes are bound to happen -- it was going to win the game.

Florida finished with 361 yards of offense, its third-highest total of the season. But the longest play was a 31-yard option run by wide receiver Omarius Hines; there also was a 23-yard pass from John Brantley to wide receiver Frankie Hammond Jr., but that was it for plays that covered at least 20 yards.

Florida used to routinely have 20-yard plays. Now, the Gators have to grind it out to score, and anybody who has seen the Gators -- including, presumably, opposing coaches who watch film -- knows that, invariably, they will make a mistake that causes a drive to stall.

Florida threw it 39 times and ran it 35 Saturday, relatively good balance until you realize 14 of the passing attempts came on Florida's last, desperate drive, which ended when punter Chas Henry, forced to do double-duty as the kicker because of an injury to Caleb Sturgis, was wide right on a 42-yard attempt with four seconds left.

The Gators seem hell-bent on continuing to run their spread-option attack, though anyone who has seen the Gators play -- including, presumably, opposing coaches who watch film -- knows that Brantley is ill-suited for that style of offense. He simply is not a threat running the ball. He is a dropback passer, one who would have fit in at Florida when Steve Spurrier or even Ron Zook was patrolling the sideline in Gainesville.

Yes, Meyer and Florida won the national title in 2006 with Chris Leak -- equally ill-suited to the spread-option offense -- at quarterback. But that Florida team had a tremendous defense and some offensive playmakers. This season's defense is not tremendous, which became apparent again when Florida could not get a one-dimensional Mississippi State offense off the field. And when speedy running back Jeff Demps is banged-up, as he has been for the past three weeks, this season's Gators have no proven offensive playmakers.

Florida's lone touchdown came on a 5-yard run by Hines off an option pitch on the Gators' opening drive of the third quarter, and it came with true freshman Trey Burton at quarterback. Burton is a great fit for the option component of the spread. But his passing has a long way to go; he has attempted just two passes this season and one was picked off, when he tried an ill-advised jump pass against Alabama.

Florida's lack of an offensive identity has meant constant shuffling at quarterback, from Brantley to Burton back to Brantley, frequently in three-play stretches. Burton plays numerous positions: wide receiver, fullback, tight end and H-back in addition to quarterback. When Burton is at quarterback, Brantley remains on the field. That makes sense, in a way, because when both are on the field, defenses can't make situational substitutions. The flipside, though, is that if Burton is at quarterback, it's going to be a run, so even if defenses can't substitute, they know what's coming.

Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio is in his second season on the job, and he has received an avalanche of criticism for the offense's play. His playcalling definitely is an issue, but it's nave to assume he has total control of the offense; this is Meyer's offense as much as anybody's. Still, Addazio deserves criticism, especially for the pitiful play of the offensive line because he doubles as the line coach.

The unit returned four starters and was expected to be one of the four or five best lines in the nation as well as the team's strength. But it hasn't gotten any consistent push in the running game and has had all sorts of trouble picking up the blitz. One reason Florida seems reluctant to throw downfield is that Brantley often is running for his life, even though he lines up in the shotgun.

"We're not very good right now," Meyer told reporters after Saturday night's loss.

Florida is off this weekend, and Meyer also said there would be changes made to the offense during the bye week. He didn't discuss specifics but did say, "We have to be able to run the ball. ... We have to have a running game."

As lethargic as Florida (4-3) has been, the Gators still control their fate in the SEC East. They beat Tennessee and blasted Kentucky, and still have Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina remaining in league play (there also are non-conference games remaining against Appalachian State and Florida State). But unless the offense turns it around quickly, this is a team that easily could finish 7-5 or even 6-6.

Considering Florida was a combined 26-2 in the past two seasons, it has been a precipitous fall from grace. Truthfully, unless the offense picks up and a decision is made as to how to best use the quarterbacks, the defense will be under the gun too often again next season.

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