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LSU at Florida: The Gators' offense has improved, but how much?

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Brent Pease's reputation as a sterling play-caller has begun to pay off for the Florida offense. But are quarterback Jeff Driskel and the Gators ready to square off against the swarming LSU defense?

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Two weeks into the 2012 college football season, the narrative for both Florida and LSU already seemed set. The Gators' defense carried them to a win at Texas A&M on Sept. 8, but it looked like the offense had not undergone too much growth since the 2011 season ended. Florida was going to be the same defense- and special teams-oriented squad it was last fall. LSU, meanwhile, ran roughshod over an overwhelmed Washington squad, outgaining the Huskies, 437-183, in a 41-3 pasting. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger completed 12 of 18 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown, Alfred Blue ran for 101 yards and a touchdown in just 14 carries, and the LSU defense was the LSU defense -- Sam Montgomery led the way with 1.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries, and Washington seemingly had no idea whatsoever how to move the ball against a D that had no obvious weaknesses.

Three weeks later, the defenses are still perfectly sound -- LSU ranks fourth in Def. S&P+, Florida 10th -- but the narrative on the other side of the ball has changed dramatically.

Shutdown Fullback previews LSU-Florida, and more!

For Florida, something clicked midway through the Tennessee game on Sept. 15. The Gators had averaged just 4.7 yards per play against Texas A&M and 4.3 through their first five drives in Knoxville. But over the final 42 plays against Tennessee, they gained a staggering 464 yards. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who finally won the starting job a week into the season, produced a Heisman-esque performance against the Vols, completing nine of his final 12 passes for 176 yards and gaining 81 yards on eight rushes, as well. UF followed this up with a solid, if unspectacular, performance against Kentucky the next week. Driskel completed 18 of 27 passes for 203 yards and carried five times (on non-sacks) for 48 yards, but he was sacked three times; running back Mike Gillislee was held in check for the most part as well, and Florida averaged 5.6 yards per play for the game (6.0 after two feckless drives to begin the game). Still, a Florida offense that looked to be mediocre in every way (for basically the third straight year) suddenly seems to have quite a bit of potential. The passing game is both efficient and a little explosive, and Gillislee has rushed for at least 85 yards in three of four games. There is hope here.

Meanwhile, there is far less hope for LSU's offense than there was just two weeks ago. The Tigers were slowed to a crawl versus a less-than-spectacular Auburn defense two weeks ago at Auburn, and they made an incredible number of mistakes in allowing Towson to hang around for quite a while last Saturday.

I said this last week about LSU, before the near-disaster versus Towson.

On standard downs, Auburn loaded up the box to stop the run and trusted its corners to hold down LSU's athletic but raw receiving corps. Auburn sacked [Zach] Mettenberger twice in 14 standard downs pass attempts (neither time rushing more than four defenders) and didn't allow a completion on a pass thrown more than 10 yards (0-for-3); at the same time, the LSU running game struggled for big gains. [Spencer] Ware gained 58 yards on two carries, but 31 other standard downs rush attempts gained just 99 yards. On 12 second- or third-and-short carries, LSU never gained more than five yards. Really, Auburn lost its discipline just twice on standard downs, both on short passes to Ware. In the first quarter, Auburn blitzed on third-and-3, and Mettenberger found Ware for 11 yards on a swing pass; and in the fourth quarter, Ware broke a tackle on a short pass and gobbled up 33 yards on third-and-4. LSU averaged just 4.2 yards per play on its other 47 standard downs snaps. That is a fantastic effort from an Auburn team that was undisciplined and often over-aggressive against Clemson a few weeks ago.

LSU is not known for a dynamic, explosive passing downs offense, and on these downs Auburn did a good job of avoiding breakdowns. The Bayou Bengals were not allowed to steal yardage on the ground in passing situations (of nine passing downs carries, only one went for more than five yards), and Mettenberger faced solid pressure on five of 13 passing downs passes. Mettenberger attempted eight passes longer than 10 yards on passing downs, and he completed just three for 49 yards, all to Kadron Boone. […]

There was no magic here. Auburn didn't blitz much, even on passing downs, choosing instead to read and react, tackling well. Aside from those two swing passes, they remained disciplined. Auburn forced Mettenberger and the LSU offense to remain error-free and score on longer drives, and for the most part the Bayou Bengals couldn't do it.

Auburn proved that if you play sound, error-free defense, LSU will find it difficult to consistently move the ball; and once the Bayou Bengals fall into passing downs, they might not be any better this year with Mettenberger than they were in 2011 with Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Towson backed this up. While LSU did average a healthy 6.5 yards per play, Mettenberger was sacked four times in just 30 pass attempts. LSU allowed almost as many tackles for loss (six) as it recorded on defense (seven), and the Tigers fumbled five times as well, losing three. In a vacuum, you can forgive a lackluster performance against an FCS team -- you have no reason to take too many chances, and you can almost certainly get away with a bare-bones gameplan and something less than A+ effort. But coming on the heels of the Auburn game, LSU's struggles versus Towson basically consolidated what is suddenly the new LSU narrative: they will stop themselves if you give them an opportunity.

Despite this negativity, however, LSU is still 5-0 and No. 4 in the country and is still a three-point favorite heading to Gainesville to take on the No. 10 Gators. LSU has still held a series of weak offenses to next to nothing, and despite the Tigers' offensive issues, Florida will still have to move the ball at least a little bit to pull the upset. Can they?

Not unlike West Virginia or Baylor, Florida tends to oscillate between two distinct offenses throughout the course of a game. (Granted, the similarities between the Gators and those two spread masters end pretty quickly after that.) The Gators will spend about half the game with Driskel under center and, on average, two backs in the backfield (sometimes one, sometimes three, with a lot of motion involved). From this look, they are run-first, run-second. Against Tennessee and Texas A&M, in the two closest, most important games they have played so far, the Gators ran over 85 percent of the time when Driskel was under center. Early in the game, the passes were simply one-step tosses to the sideline. Boise State's offense under Brent Pease was based on motion, numbers and matchups, and we get a glimpse of that here. Florida wants to establish the run and wants the numbers on its side, but if he sees the right numbers on the outside, Driskel is free to fling a quick pass to someone like tight end Trey Burton or receiver Solomon Patton with hopes of nice after-catch yardage.

The other half of the time, Florida will line up with Driskel in the shotgun, with a dash of pistol mixed in. This could mean a run-first, two-back, three-wide look, but most of the time it is total spread with either no backs and five wideouts or one back and four wideouts. From this look, the Gators pass most of the time, at least early on. They threw 77 percent of the time with Driskel in the shotgun against Tennessee and A&M, mixing in short (50 percent of passes were thrown to within six yards of the line of scrimmage), intermediate (38 percent were thrown between seven and 13 yards), and long passing (12 percent were thrown at least 20 yards). When Driskel has time to get the pass off, it is probably going to work out pretty well. From the shotgun in the first half against Tennessee and A&M, Driskel was 12-for-16 for 154 yards, leaning mostly on tight end Jordan Reed (six receptions for 83 yards), who has shown nice run-after-catch ability. The problem for the Gators is protection: Driskel was sacked an unacceptable four times in 20 attempts. Florida handled Tennessee's pressure much better than A&M's, but this was still a significant issue, if for no other reason than LSU's pass rush is probably better than A&M's (make no mistake, though: A&M's is damn good).

The first half seems to be one of experimentation for Pease and the Gators. How well can they establish Gillislee early? (The answer against Tennessee and A&M: not very well.) How disciplined is the opposing defense against the Wildcat formation or some reverses to Andre Debose? What works, and what doesn't? In the second half, Pease zeroes in a bit. The run-pass percentages remain similar (they called runs 57 percent of the time in the first half versus Texas A&M and Tennessee, 60 percent in the second), but the effectiveness improves. Driskel appears to put the game in his own hands a bit more. He has shown the tendency to scramble more in the second half when UF absolutely needs yardage (and he does it well -- six scrambles in these games netted three gains of at least 12 yards and only one loss), and while the passing game remains mostly conservative (61 percent of passes traveling eight or fewer yards), the aggressive strikes tend to work. Driskel was 3-for-4 for 94 yards and a touchdown in passes traveling 20 yards or more in the second half of these two games.

Judging by the reputation Pease built at Boise State, this makes sense. Like Oregon with Chip Kelly, Boise State seemed willing to experiment and stall out a bit early on in order to figure out what would absolutely work when they needed it to. (Think back to quarterback Kellen Moore's clinical, counter-punching, mid-game devastation of Georgia in the 2011 season opener.) Florida's offense is certainly still a work in progress, but Pease has shown the same potential as a play-caller in Gainesville.

Of course, potential and "signs of growth" won't do you much good against LSU. Pease calls this Saturday's game a "defining moment" of sorts for the Gators, and it will certainly tell us what we need to know about the Gators' ceiling this season. The Florida defense should be able to frustrate LSU long enough to give the offense a chance to seize control of the game. But doing so against perhaps the fastest, most aggressive defense in the country (Alabama's is better right now, but LSU's is more likely to pile up ridiculous tackle-for-loss figures) is a chore. Against a lot of teams, a skilled coordinator can take advantage of aggressiveness and over-pursuit. Against LSU, it is quite a bit more difficult.

A win on Saturday would dramatically change the narrative of Florida's season. Suddenly, Florida could be looking at an undefeated record when it visits Florida State over Thanksgiving weekend. But a competitive loss would just show that while the Gators have improved since last year, particularly on offense, they still have a decent amount of growth to undertake before they resume their position as a national power. LSU, on the other hand, really only has two goals this season: 1. Be undefeated when Alabama comes to town. 2. Get your revenge. A loss to Florida would magnify the negativity that has already begun to circle around this offense.

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