Monday, May 21, 2018
Colleges

Florida Gators defense snags some turnovers

GAINESVILLE —The Florida defense on Saturday didn't face the quarterback it had prepared for all week.

It didn't put the unit at a disadvantage.

The Gators intercepted Kentucky's Morgan Newton three times en route to a 38-0 victory in their SEC home opener.

Newton, a senior who started last year against the Gators, started in place of Maxwell Smith, the SEC's leader in passing yards before Saturday. It was announced after the start of the game that Smith was out due to a shoulder injury.

"Yeah, we actually prepared for 11 (Smith)," Gators junior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "But then we saw 12 (Newton), and we just made adjustments because we know he can run, so you've got to stay in coverage."

Watkins picked off Newton with 8:24 remaining in the second quarter, returning his first career interception 26 yards for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead. He recognized the formation and jumped a slant route.

"When they stack on top like that, they're pretty much going to pick the top corner, which was Louchiez (Purifoy), and run a sneak route underneath," Watkins said. "So I just beat the receiver to the spot."

Florida coach Will Muschamp gave the defensive line part of the credit for the turnovers, noting that the front four generated enough pressure that linebackers could drop into coverage. This was evident on the third interception, which occurred on the Wildcats' last possession of the first half when linebacker Mike Taylor picked off a Newton pass over the middle with no receivers within 5 yards of him.

The first interception came on Kentucky's first drive of the second quarter. Newton overthrew running back Jonathan George on the right side. Sophomore safety De'Ante "Pop" Saunders reached down and caught the pass at the UF 48 as it was about to fall incomplete and returned it to the Wildcats' 23.

"We zoned off," Muschamp said of the defense on the play. "They were in a three-by-one set. We were in a strong rotation and Pop did really a nice job. They're trying to run everybody off and hit the back out of the backfield. We got pressure on the quarterback. The ball was floated. He made a nice play on that."

Saturday was the first time the Gators had forced more than two turnovers in a game under Muschamp, who is in his second season. The last time Florida had more than two takeaways was against Penn State in the Outback Bowl two seasons ago when the Gators had five interceptions.

In 2011, Florida was tied for 93rd in the country with just eight interceptions.

"It felt pretty bad, not giving our offense the ball because they hold the ball," Watkins said of the defense's turnover struggles. "Now, they're holding the ball, and now we're giving them the ball. So it's all a team effort. So it feels good to actually get that monkey off our back."

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