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LSU will test Gators' declining run defense

Arkansas’ Michael Smith eludes Brandon Spikes, Florida’s defensive leader.

Associated Press

Arkansas’ Michael Smith eludes Brandon Spikes, Florida’s defensive leader.

GAINESVILLE — Good, but not great.

In his weekly preparation for the Gators' upcoming opponent, coach Urban Meyer always includes playing great defense as an integral part of the plan. In a 38-7 win over Arkansas last weekend, Meyer said it was simply "good, but not great."

This week, the Gators will need as close to great as possible.

When defending national champion and No. 4 LSU comes to Gainesville Saturday night, the No. 11 Gators will face the best ground attack they've seen all season.

"No question, it's easily our best test so far," defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "… What a great measuring stick."

LSU has the league's best rusher in junior running back Charles Scott, who is averaging 133.8 yards. The Tigers have the league's second-best rushing defense (206.5 per game).

The Gators are allowing just 99.6 rushing yards per game, but Arkansas running back Michael Smith rushed for 133 yards on 20 attempts.

LSU has an offensive line that is big and physical. Center Brett Helms, left tackle Ciron Black and left guard Herman Johnson each have at least 26 career starts.

"I just think they're getting better," LSU coach Les Miles said. "They're veteran. We've learned to count on them. I think they are a dominant group in terms of rushing the football and protecting our passer. I give them high marks."

So, too, does Florida. McCarney said the Tigers run so well because of that line he describes as "huge and confident."

"Their backs keep rolling at you," he said. "We've got to do all we can to slow them down. We're not going to stop them, who are we kidding? That stuff sounds good. We've got to slow them down and we've got to be good on third down again, hopefully get some turnovers. But they don't do much of that, they are taking care of the ball. That's why they are 4-0."

LSU's tailbacks have a streak of 378 carries without a fumble, while Florida's plus-8 turnover margin is ranked third nationally. But in the past two games, the Gators have given up a combined 281 rushing yards. Against Arkansas, they struggled against the run, and their top two tacklers were cornerback Joe Haden and safety Major Wright.

"It doesn't say very well about the defensive front, does it?" defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said.

What the Gators may need most against LSU is leading tackler Brandon Spikes. Since the preseason, Strong has said that as the junior linebacker goes, so goes the defense. It's his leadership and ability to make those around him play better that Florida missed in the Arkansas game, when Spikes wasn't at his best.

"He's had some great games, I don't think last week was one of his great games," Meyer said. "I expect him to play a great game this weekend. The way he practices, he's like a lot of players, like most players. I can see the juice and energy. And he knows he didn't play very well."

With the memory of last year's 28-24 loss (in which the defense collapsed in the fourth quarter), the Gator players believe that because LSU is bringing a freshman quarterback into a hostile environment, it won't hesitate to try to pound the ball all night. Unless UF can stop the Tigers.

"LSU is a run team so we're trying to focus on stopping the run, getting downhill more and to go ahead and hit the ball before it crosses the line, so they don't get any momentum from it," linebacker Brandon Hicks said.

Translation?

"We've got to be more tough in the trenches," safety Ahmad Black said. "That's it. Period."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

LSU will test Gators' declining run defense 10/09/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 6:42pm]
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