JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's offense struggled for a variety of reasons in 2011: Injuries, poor play by the offensive line, and a lack of production from the wide receivers.
One of the results of those problems -- other than a 6-6 record -- was a lack of big plays. The Gators had a significant drop-off in runs of 10 or more yards and passes of 20 or more yards -- which is how UF determines big plays -- in 2011 from previous seasons. Florida had 95 big plays on offense, which seems like a big number until you see that the Gators had 98 running plays of 10 or more yards alone in 2008.
So why so few this season?
"I'll politely decline answering that," interim offensive coordinator Brian White said after Wednesday's practice at Jacksonville University.
One reason would be the play of the quarterback, and White certainly doesn't want to be critical of John Brantley heading into the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, especially since he's auditioning for the the offensive coordinator job. With Tim Tebow leading the offense, the Gators had 144 big plays in 2008 and 147 in 2009. The numbers dipped to 106 in 2010 and then 95 this season, with Brantley, Trey Burton, Jordan Reed, Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett all taking snaps at quarterback in the last two seasons.
It's unfair to compare that group to one of the greatest players in college football history, but there was clearly a drop-off in talent and production. Teams weren't afraid of UF's passing game and were able to crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the run. That, plus injuries and poor play along the offensive line, resulted in few chances for running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey to break long runs.
Demps and Rainey entered the season with career per-carry averages of 7.1 yards. They averaged 5.9 and 5.1 yards this season, respectively. UF finished with 60 runs of 10 or more yards, but only eight were 30 yards or longer.
UF had just 35 passes of 20 or more yards, which is five more than last season but well shy of the 46 in 2008 and 49 in 2009. Four of the 35 passes were touchdowns to Andre Debose of at least 64 yards.
Two of those, however, came against Furman. In fact, 33 of UF's big plays on offense came against the Gators' non-BCS foes (Florida Atlantic, UAB and Furman).
Big plays have been something the Gators have focused on big plays during the bowl practices.
"As an offensive lineman, that's what we hope for -- big plays down the field instead of grinding it all the way down," offensive lineman Jon Halapio said. "Obviously we couldn't get that, so we're looking forward to doing that this game."
Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.