IN THE nine months since Florida hired highly touted coach Urban Meyer away from Utah, Gators linebacker Brandon Siler and his defensive teammates have been relegated to relative anonymity while Florida fans breathlessly awaited the offensive fireworks promised by Meyer's innovative spread attack. "All the fans want to see is touchdowns, touchdowns, touchdowns," Siler says. "They better get used to sacks and big stops, because they're going to see a lot of it."
In Meyer's much-anticipated SEC debut against No. 4 Tennessee last Saturday, it was a much-improved defense that led Florida to a 16-7 win over its East Division nemesis. The sixth-ranked Gators held the Vols to 213 yards--70 in the second half--and the Vols scored their fewest points against Florida since being shut out in 1994.
Since his arrival last January, Meyer has repeatedly harped about the Gators' need to become tougher, a trait largely lacking during three straight five-loss seasons under his predecessor, Ron Zook. In their 30-28 victory over Florida in Knoxville last year, the Vols asserted their superior toughness by running the ball 12 straight times on their first touchdown drive. "Our players took that personally," says co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. "They weren't going to let that happen again [this year]."
Though Tennessee running back Gerald Riggs Jr. gained 73 yards on 11 carries in a first half that ended with the score tied at seven, Florida made plays to keep the Vols off the board and turned Riggs into a nonfactor in the second half (six carries for 13 yards). Once they went ahead in the third quarter, the Gators hounded quarterback Erik Ainge despite being without defensive end Ray McDonald, the team's top pass rusher, who went down with an ACL injury in the second quarter. "On [Tennessee's] last two drives, we brought a ton of pressure," said Strong. "Linebackers, corners, safeties--we were bringing a little bit of everything."
Last season the Gators produced just 23 sacks, a major reason the defense gave up big fourth-quarter yardage in losses to Tennessee, Mississippi State and LSU. Now that cornerbacks Vernell Brown and Dee Webb have a year under their belts, Strong feels more comfortable calling blitzes and playing man coverage in crucial situations. Despite repeated efforts by the Vols to attack Florida's corners with fade routes, the Gators held the Vols to 24 yards in the final quarter. "People were saying we're a soft fourth-quarter team, but we were just young last year," says defensive end Jeremy Mincey. "With the maturity we have now, we know how to handle those situations."
Florida's defense began to show its maturity--perhaps not coincidentally--shortly after Zook's firing following a 38-31 loss to Mississippi State last Oct. 23. Having given up 30 or more points in four of its first eight games, the D allowed 17, 14 and 13 in its last three regular-season games. Through three games this year, the defense has taken its play up another notch, ranking fourth in the country with 8.0 points per game allowed. What's the difference? "A little more aggressiveness, and probably a little cockiness," says Siler. "We know we're good."
Florida's veteran offense, expected to be the team's strength, didn't look quite so good against the Vols, repeatedly incurring foolish penalties. Twice in the third quarter, Tennessee gave up the ball in its own territory (first on a fumbled punt return, then on a fake punt), only to see the Gators settle for field goals. A proven passer, quarterback Chris Leak has yet to become comfortable with the run component of Meyer's spread-option offense, which requires him to read the defensive end's movement and either hand the ball off or tuck and carry it himself. The Gators gained just 68 yards on 37 attempts on Saturday, with Leak running eight times for 24 yards.
When he needed to most, though, Leak (who finished 17 of 26 for 179 yards) delivered. He completed third-down passes of 23 and 24 yards to keep alive a clock-eating fourth-quarter drive that culminated in Chris Hetland's 20-yard field goal to put Florida up by nine. "Chris Leak showed a lot of toughness," noted Meyer. The same could be said of the Gators' new, physical defense. --Stewart Mandel