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Gator offense faces its toughest hurdle

Dim the lights and grab a seat. Today's feature film presentation is titled "The University of Florida's Offensive Highlights vs. Auburn, 1987-89."

It's the first quarter of the 1989 game and the Gators have forced a turnover at the Auburn 5. On first down, quarterback Donald Douglas hands off to Emmitt Smith, who scoots into the end zone for a touchdown!

The end.

That's it. Three games, 12 quarters and scads of preparation have produced one touchdown in the past three years.

And it was a 5-yard drive.

Sure, you could also bring up the two field goals Florida kicked in the 1987 loss, but do you really want that in a highlight film? In those three games, all losses, Florida has scored six, zero and seven points. Not an encouraging thought for the 15th-ranked Gators (6-1) as they enter Saturday night's game against No.

4 Auburn (6-0-1).

The upcoming episode will feature many of the same performers as in previous years, particularly on the Auburn defensive side, which returns Lombardi Trophy finalist David Rocker and seven other starters from last year.

"This is the most talented team I've been around on defense. It's mostly the same guys we had last year, but now we have even more depth," Rocker said. "Our problem is we haven't all been on the same page yet this year. We haven't clicked and played our best.

"It's not for a lack of practice or work in the game, it just hasn't clicked for some unexplained reason."

Now this "clicking" business is a relative thing.

While it's true Auburn hasn't had the imposing defense of previous seasons _ the Tigers gave up an average of 18 points against the unimpressive triumvirate of Louisiana Tech, Cal State-Fullerton and Mississippi State this year _ this defense remains one of the best in the country. Auburn is ranked third in the Southeastern Conference and 10th in the nation. On the other side of the ball, UF's offense is first in the SEC and third in the nation.

"They definitely have a physical defensive line," said Gators guard Chris Bromley. "I don't know if they work on hitting drills all day or what, but those guys will come after you. They obviously have great defensive coaches."

The one problem the Tigers defense has faced in recent games is a lack of pass rush. Auburn has recorded one sack in the past 70 pass attempts by opponents.

Nevertheless, Florida coach Steve Spurrier is still concerned for the well-being of quarterback Shane Matthews. Spurrier replaced senior tackle Glenn Neely with junior Tony Rowell before last week's Akron win to improve the team's pass-blocking.

Weak pass protection by the offensive line was cited by Spurrier as one of Florida's bigger problems in a 45-3 thumping by Tennessee. Matthews and his replacements were sacked four times in that game, and a heavy rush contributed to several of Tennessee's five interceptions.

"We'll be better prepared for the pass rush this time," Matthews said. "They're going to put pressure on us, but we'll have a game plan that will control their defensive line. Hopefully."

Florida's game plan could be a major difference between Saturday's action and the results of the past three years, Rocker said.

While the Gators had Smith, an All-America running back, in the past three meetings, the offense's reliance on his skills could have led to its undoing. Florida threw five passes in last year's game.

Florida's offense has been much more balanced this season (264 rushes, 255 passes), and Rocker said that will keep Auburn from dominating the Gators.

"I don't see that happening at all. This Florida offense is a lot better than last year," Rocker said. "There's nothing better for a defense than to line up and know they're going to run the ball. You can prepare and go all out for just one thing."

Notes: Spurrier announced that defensive end Michael Kerr, who had been suspended in August, will dress for his first game of the season Saturday. Inside linebacker Carlton Miles, who started in place of Jerry Odom against Akron two weeks ago, will not play against the Tigers. Miles is still suffering from a back injury sustained against Akron.