Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Colleges

Gators mistakes leave them seeing red

MIAMI

For the Florida Gators, the end zone always seems uphill. Even when they are close to it, it seems far, far away.

They sputter, and they spew, and they self-destruct. They get stuck in the mud, and they fizzle, and they flop. They are a tease, moving the ball easily across every stripe on the field that doesn't give a team points and then bogging down just short of the one that does.

They can be a maddening team to watch, these Gators. Take Saturday, for instance, when Florida spent most of the afternoon on the verge of winning and somehow left the game lying somewhere in the University of Miami red zone. There were too many turnovers, too many botched opportunities, too many mistakes inside the Hurricanes 20.

It all added up to a 21-16 victory by Miami, one of the Hurricanes' biggest victories in years. If Florida is really pulling out of this series in search of more home games, then the 'Canes gave them a reason why.

And give the 'Canes credit for this much: When they were in the shadows of their goal line, every defensive lineman turned into Warren Sapp and every linebacker into Ray Lewis and every defensive back into Bennie Blades. For Miami, there is no such thing as a bad day that includes a victory over Florida, and everything else is details.

Still, if you follow the Gators, this has to be a vexing defeat to endure. Florida spent enough time in the Miami red zone to qualify to vote there, and time after time, to the point of disbelief, the Gators would find a way to mess it up.

"You can't turn the ball over five times and go 1-for-6 in the red zone," said coach Will Muschamp, glancing at a stat sheet and shaking his head. "Just killer turnovers. The bottom line is that you cannot continue to shoot yourself in the foot and give someone else the opportunity, especially on the road. And we certainly did that."

Shoot yourself in the foot? Hah. The Gators went all Scarface on their own feet. They machine-gunned their toes, and they glocked their ankles, and they bazookaed the area in between.

Consider: After a blocked punt set up their first touchdown, the Gators were trailing 7-6. Yet they got all tricky, failing on a two-point conversion.

Consider: Early in the second period, the Gators drove 54 yards to the 11 of the Hurricanes. But on third down, Jeff Driskel threw the ball directly to Miami's Rayshawn Jenkins. "Dumb play," Driskel later said.

Consider: On their next drive, the Gators drove 56 yards to the Miami 16. But on fourth and 1, the Hurricanes jammed the interior of the line and stopped Driskel cold. Yes, he could have audibled out of the sneak, but he said he felt his line could get enough push. It didn't.

Consider: On the drive after that, the Gators went 66 yards to the Hurricanes 13. On first down, Trey Burton fumbled after a 4-yard reception.

Consider: Early in the fourth period, the Gators were at the Hurricanes 17. On third and 3, Driskel threw his second interception. "A bad call on my part," Driskel said.

And so it went.

This year, the Gators offense is supposed to be much better than the scratch-and-claw and wear-opponents-down style of 2012, but you could only notice that between the 20s. Yes, the Gators outgained Miami by more than 200 yards, but they didn't make the big plays in the big moments.

Miami did. When it counted the most, it looked smarter, more resilient. No, the 'Canes still aren't a team that will remind you of the national championship team of 30 years ago — or any of the other four champions in between — but they look like a real team again.

Along the way, they demonstrated how a team has to play to beat the Gators. It has to jam the box and almost dare Florida to throw to beat you. The result was Florida's Matt Jones averaged only 2.6 yards per carry and Mack Brown averaged only 2.9. Driskel, meanwhile, threw for 291 yards but had the two picks to stop drives.

"You can't throw into traffic in the red zone," Muschamp said.

It is telling, perhaps, that on a day that the offense fizzled, Muschamp started his news conference by complaining about the defense. He is, after all, a defensive-minded coach.

But as the Gators look at a schedule that includes Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and FSU, it seems that the offense needs to take a larger stride forward for them to have a chance.

Some of those strides, it bears pointing out, are bound to be in opponents' red zones.

Eventually, some of them need to be in the end zone, too.

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