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November 4, 2008

Defense makes the difference for Florida

JACKSONVILLE There's Tim Tebow, heaving a 44-yard touchdown pass. There's Tim Tebow, tucking and plunging 2 yards into the end zone. There's Tim Tebow, doing a victory lap around Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.

Tebow, Tebow, Tebow!

No doubt, Tebow deserves some credit for the Gators' 7-1 record and rise to No. 5 in the BCS standings following his five-touchdown effort in a 49-10 drubbing of Georgia. But he knows what the real key to the Gators' rise into BCS title game contention has been.

"The defense made plays," said Tebow, who was 10-of-13 for 154 yards and two touchdowns and ran 12 times for 39 yards and three scores.

But the reason Florida can clinch the SEC East this Saturday with a win at Vanderbilt is because of its improved defense. If Alabama prevails at LSU this weekend, the Crimson Tide wrap up the SEC West title. That would set up what could be the biggest game of the season outside of the national championship game: Alabama vs. Florida in Atlanta for the SEC title.

It's difficult not to look ahead for the Gators, considering how well they are playing. Since an inexplicable 31-30 home loss to Ole Miss, Florida has outscored its past four foes 201-43. The annihilation of Georgia was the Gators' most impressive outing and sent a strong message: Florida is the hottest team in the country.

"This was strictly business," said Florida junior Brandon Spikes, who is playing as well as any linebacker in the nation.

And business was good in Jacksonville. Florida forced Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford to toss three interceptions, sacked him twice and pressured him countless times. Even more impressive: The Gators held Knowshon Moreno to 65 yards and forced a Moreno fumble that set up a short UF touchdown drive.

Part of the credit goes to the Florida strength and conditioning coaches. They wouldn't let the Gator defenders forget Georgia's 42-30 victory last season. Pictures of the Bulldogs celebrating their first touchdown en masse in the end zone hung in the Gators' locker room. And the strength and conditioning staff had each player do 188 sit-ups, 188 pull-ups and 188 crunches each day in the offseason. Why 188? One for each rushing yard Moreno gained on Florida in 2007.

"We wanted to stop Knowshon Moreno from running downhill all game like he did last year," Spikes said. "We tried to hit hard early in the game to make a statement. The guys up front did a great job."

That would be sophomore tackles Terron Sanders and Lawrence Marsh. That duo has answered concerns about the strength of the interior of the line. Defensive line coach Dan McCarney also has been a key figure in his first year on the staff. McCarney is rotating nine players at end and tackle, keeping everyone fresh. Even more vital: Everyone is fighting for jobs.

Toothy defense
While a potent offense has played a huge role in helping Florida get back in the title chase, the defense also deserves plaudits. Following is a look at the key defensive statistics for Florida the past three seasons (the Gators won the national title in 2006), with the national ranking in parentheses:
YearRush defensePass defenseTotal defenseScoring defense
2008 103.1 ypg (13th) 185.9 ypg (32nd) 289.0 ypg (16th) 11.6 ppg (5th)
2007 103.3 ypg (10th) 258.5 ypg (98th) 361.9 ypg (41st) 25.5 ppg (46th)
2006 72.5 ppg (5th) 182.9 ypg (33rd) 255.4 ypg (6th) 13.5 ppg (6th)

"Maturity and competition is the difference," coach Urban Meyer said when asked to compare last season's disappointing defense to this season's.

Another revelation has been the play of a "kiddie corps" secondary that starts a true freshman and three sophomores. Cornerbacks Joe Haden (sophomore) and Janoris Jenkins (freshman) have been outstanding in coverage and run support. Sophomore safeties Ahmad Black (strong) and Major Wright (free) have grown into roles as leaders in the secondary.

Haden had the backbreaking interception Saturday. With Georgia driving to cut into Florida's 14-3 lead early in the third quarter, Haden picked off a pass and returned it 88 yards to Georgia's 1. The Gators scored quickly to make it 21-3 and the rout was on.

Last season, Florida ranked 98th in the nation in pass defense (258.5 ypg). This season, Florida sits 17th (185.8 ypg). The impressive numbers don't end there. The Gators have forced 20 turnovers and have a plus-14 turnover margin; their 13 interceptions already are two more than they had last season. The Gators have returned four interceptions for touchdowns, which is tied for first in the nation. The defense has been especially suffocating in the first half, allowing just two touchdowns as the Gators have outscored their foes 164-23 before halftime.

Florida is doing all of this despite being the only team in the SEC that doesn't start a senior on defense.

"With great defense, you're going to win a bunch of football games," Meyer said.

Maybe even a national championship.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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