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October 10, 2010

Gator offense searching for answers

Moments after a wrenching loss to LSU, Urban Meyer addressed his team, held up his right hand and pushed his thumb and index finger toward each with only a sliver of space between the two digits.

"Like I told the team we were that far," Meyer said. "Who in this room is devastated enough to give that much more to win that game? There were a bunch of guys who gave everything that they had to win that game. There were a bunch of guys who haven't done that. That's what we have to address and identify and get better. How far that is, we have to find a way to get that."

After its traditional first-half swoon, Florida's offense improved enough during the course of the game to win, but in the end it wasn't enough, as LSU prevailed, largely on the strength of a strong first half. The Tigers out-gained their hosts 224-65 and led 20-14 at halftime. Both of UF's scores followed LSU mistakes, an interception by Jordan Jefferson and a muffed punt by Patrick Peterson. It was a one-touchdown affair, but it could have been worse, much worse.

"I have to attribute it to something," Meyer said. "That's our job. We're struggling. How's that for attributing it to something? We've just got to go back to work and get a little better and get everyone healthy. We're now six games into it. I'm very disappointed. Andre Debose pulling off that return in the second half, we need that around here. If there's a positive, we've identified an electric playmaker. Now he's got to do it more consistently and more often."

Debose's score was one of four UF touchdowns. UF's offense only generated one score on its own --- a masterful 10-play, 80-yard drive ---- and that didn't come until late in the fourth quarter. UF had one other prolific offensive possession, a 15-play, 70-yard drive to open the second half, but a holding penalty and two missed field goal attempts marred that scoring opportunity.

Injuries didn't help. Florida was without
tailback Jeff Demps, who sat out because of a sprained foot. Others eventually sidelined were offensive guard Jon Halapio (hand) and wide receiver Deonte Thompson and running back Mike Gillislee. No injuries were specified for Thompson and Gillislee.

But Demps, who entered the game averaging 6.5 yards a carry, is UF's most consistent playmaker.

"He's a tough guy," Meyer said. "He tried. Obviously it has an impact when you don't have a player like that. Gillislee was out part of the game, too, so we were down to almost no backs. There was a lot of stuff we were trying to get done. At one point Deonte (Thompson), Gilly and obviously Demps was out of the game. That was tough few minutes in that second half, where we had to figure out how to get things rolling."

Florida tallied 116 yards rushing. No UF player cracked the 40-yard mark. Trey Burton, who relieved starter John Brantley in obvious running situations, led the way with 36 yards. Running back Emmanuel rushed for 34 and Gillislee 20.

"We missed (Demps) a lot," Brantley said. "He's a great running back. He's our guy, really. But with the other backs we've got, with Gillislee and Moody, it's OK. Those two backs are great, but (Demps) brings more depth, really."

In the first half, LSU manhandled UF's offensive line, but Meyer said he would reserve judgment before offering an evaluation.

"I can't do that until I watch the film," Meyer said. "I know they were pressuring us a lot, but I don't know until I see the film."

LSU sacked Brantley three times. Florida's starting quarterback completed 16 of 24 passes for 154 yards, despite bruised ribs and a sprained thumb.

"I expect that out of Johnny," Meyer said. "Johnny's a tough dude, man. Comes from a tough family. Got a great background. He's a competitor, basically the one who talked to our team at halftime. When he calls the team up to the huddle, he does a nice job. We need to do more on offense, but to question Johnny's toughness, that's incorrect. We just have to get better."

ESPN reported that Brantley had sustained broken ribs, but the Gator legacy denied that.

"There was never any doubt that I was going to play," Brantley said. "I knew since Sunday or Monday that I was. (The ribs) are a little banged up. Nothing too serious, nothing that you can't play through."

After being overwhelmed much of the first half, Brantley met with the team at halftime and tried to offer a few words of reassurance.

"I told the defense, that we go that ball (in the second half) and to keep fighting," Brantley said. "I assured everyone that the offense was going to take the ball and go down and score. I was just trying to do everything I can."

LSU's defensive dominance was not surprising. The Tigers entered the game as the SEC's stingiest outfit, yielding just 246 yards a game.

"That's a good defense," Brantley said. "Things happen when you play such a good defense. We were trying to figure out what they were doing. They blitzed us a lot and we were trying to find a rhythm. You really can't explain what went wrong yet."

Trailing 26-14, Florida found new life when Debose returned a kickoff 88 yards, which made it 26-21 with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter.

"The momentum changed and that took a lot of pressure off our offense," Brantley said. "We feel like we needed to get things going and with that, it let everyone settle down and get things going."

After the UF defense got a stop, Brantley led Florida on a 10-play, 80-yard drive. The key play was a 51-yard pass to Carl Moore, who ended up with four catches for 95 yards.

"Carl's really come on this season," Brantley said. "We need a guy to do that and he has. He's a big-play guy. He runs great routes. He knows how to get open and he has great hands."

After UF scored on Gillislee's 5-yard run and Frankie Hammond, Jr. caught a short pass for a 2-point conversion, UF appeared to be in control with a 29-26 lead and 3:21left.

"I didn't think we had the game, I thought we had a good chance," Brantley said. "We gave ourselves a chance. LSU's a good team. They had plenty of time to go down the field and score, so we knew we had a chance, but we knew we didn't have it in the bag."

After a second consecutive loss, Meyer stressed more players need to step up. However, Brantley refused to criticize his teammates.

"I don't feel that way," he said "We keep fighting. That's what we did. Sometimes, the ball doesn't bounce our way. We kept fighting. That's what we want to see. We've just got to move on and get better."

Florida (4-2, 2-2) still controls its postseason fate. If the Gators win the rest of their SEC games, they will win the SEC East and play in the SEC Championship Game for a third consecutive season.

"The SEC's a crazy conference," Brantley said. "If we put these two losses behind us, we have a really good chance of winning the East."


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