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No passing fancy

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It's hard to believe for anyone who has followed Florida football over the past 20 years.

The Gators are last in the Southeastern Conference in passing. Not only that, they're not even averaging 150 passing yards per game.

Not since 1988 has Florida had a passing attack with such little production.

But while fans might be concerned, players and coaches aren't. They say the passing game is productive and could carry the team if needed, but the running game is working so well there's no reason to start flinging the ball around. Besides, the Gators are undefeated and No. 2 in the BCS standings, so why mess with the formula?

"I didn't realize we were last in passing, but we're first in the East [Division]," QB Jeff Driskel said. "That's all that matters. We're undefeated. We haven't dropped a game yet. If you're winning, everything's all right.

"Obviously we got to get better in the passing game, but we're winning games. That's all that matters."

He's right. That is the bottom line. But there is going to be a game -- and maybe it's Saturday against No. 7 South Carolina, which has one of the nation's top pass rushers in DE Jadeveon Clowney and a pass defense that is allowing only 187.6 yards per game and has given up only three passing TDs -- where the Gators are going to have to throw the football a lot to win.

And despite the coaches' and players confidence, it doesn't appear that they're capable of doing so -- against good teams, anyway.

Florida threw for 165 yards against Texas A&M on Sept. 8. The Aggies enter this weekend's games giving up 280.8 yards per game, 13th in the 14-team SEC. The Gators also threw for 219 yards against Tennessee and 203 against Kentucky. The Vols are 12th in the SEC in pass defense (251.0 yards per game) and the Wildcats are 11th (232.3 yards per game). UK has also given up a league-high 11 TD passes.

But the Gators threw for 61 yards against LSU and 77 yards against Vanderbilt. Those teams rank second and third, respectively, in the SEC in pass defense. It's the first time in 23 years the Gators failed to throw for at least 100 yards in back-to-back games. UF threw for 66 yards in a victory over New Mexico and 6 yards in a loss to Auburn in 1989.

The Gators did run the ball well against LSU (176 yards) and Vanderbilt (326 yards), and that's a factor. But UF also had inconsistent pass protection, four drops, and Driskel was sacked six times. The receivers, who made plays in the first four games of the season, have struggled in the last two games, combining for seven receptions for 45 yards.

Frankie Hammond, whom coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease have called the Gators' most consistent receiver, has two catches for minus-1 yards in the two games.

Most of the passes the past two games have been short or screens. The longest completion was a 21-yarder to Quinton Dunbar against Vanderbilt.

Pease admits he hasn't called many passes the last two weeks -- although it's more than the 32 attempts shown in the box score because Driskel has scrambled for yards on some plays that were supposed to be passes -- but that's because he saw no reason to do so. The running game was working so well, so why get away from that?

"LSU, it had a give and take based on we were running the ball well, so we're taking it and putting it in the O-line's hands," Pease said. "When we go in and you hit 10 plays for explosive plays [against Vanderbilt], the bottom line is run them again. Run them again, OK. Let's not get greedy here as a coach and say, 'I don't like that. I'm throwing the ball because that's what we all love to do.'

"If Jeff Driskel can carry the ball 70 yards and outrun everybody, he's getting the ball. If Mike Gillislee can get the ball and outrun everybody, he's getting the ball. And if our O-line blocks like they block, we're giving them the ball. I'm not going to be stubborn as far as playing off numbers every week. I'm going to do what's best for this team and what they create for us to be productive and score points and win football games."

Which is the only thing Muschamp cares about, too. He'd like the offense to be balanced, but it's not as vital as walking off the field with a victory. But he's also adamant that the 2012 Gators could throw it around as well as Steve Spurrier's teams did.

"Right now we're playing good defense and special teams and running the ball," Muschamp said. "It's going to create opportunities for us down field in the passing game. I think we will be able to do it when it happens, and it is a matter of time when those opportunities present themselves. They haven't to this point in the season.

"I believe you do what it takes to win games. Whether that means we need to throw it 60 times a game, well let's throw it 60 times. Let's do what we got to do to win, and that's the most important thing."