Defense does it

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's defense was statistically pretty good this season.

The Gators ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, passing defense, and total defense. They were second nationally in third-down defense.

But Florida had compiled those numbers while going 6-6, including 0-4 in an October that included the two teams that will be playing in the BCS National Championship Game later this week. So how much did those stats and rankings really mean?

That's why defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said the Gators had to play well in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl against Ohio State. Handle the supposedly more-physical Big Ten and Floyd said the Gators finally would have something tangible to back up those statistical rankings.

He got his proof in front of 61,312 at EverBank Field. The Gators forced two turnovers, sacked quarterback Braxton Miller six times and allowed the Buckeyes to convert just 2 of 10 third downs in a 24-17 victory.

"We've been hearing that all week -- the Big Ten is more physical -- and we showed that that's nothing," Floyd said. "They put their pads on the same way we put ours on, and they shoot their hands the same way we shoot ours. So, that was an insult."

Florida (7-6), which avoided the program's first losing season since 1979, did give up 137 yards rushing, but the Gators made Miller a non-factor. He entered the game as the Buckeyes' leading rusher (695 yards) but managed just 36 yards on 15 carries. He had an 18-yard run in the third quarter but otherwise couldn't get free on the edge.

The Gators sacked him a season-high six times, including the first 1½ sacks of Floyd's career. UF pressured him with blitzes that paid off with sacks by safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, and defensive tackle Jaye Howard had 1½ sacks in the final game of his career.

"Everything's clicking right now," said Floyd, who played both tackle and end because the Gators were without tackle Dominique Easley (torn ACL). "I got a couple [sacks]. That was good. I'm looking forward to more. I feel more comfortable at that [tackle] than I am at end, but at the end of the day I'm going to do what's best for my team."

Howard admitted they were helped by something the coaching staff picked up on film.

Ohio State center Mike Brewster bobs his head just before he snaps the ball, Howard said. They saw it when they were watching Ohio State's game against Penn State and they capitalized on it Monday.

"He was bobbing his head the whole game with the snap count," Howard said. "We broke down the Penn State game, and he did it the whole game. It helped a lot. You saw what we were able to do today."

The Gators also forced a pair of fumbles, including one inside the Ohio State 30. Defensive tackle Omar Hunter stripped Ohio State running back Dan Herron, and safety De'Ante Saunders recovered the ball at the Buckeyes' 32.

Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy force another fumble in the third quarter, knocking the ball loose from Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey at the Florida 33-yard line. Saunders briefly had the ball but lost it, and Evans eventually ended up with it. The Gators turned that turnover into points on Caleb Sturgis' 17-yard field goal.

It was the defense's second consecutive solid performance, coming on the heels of holding rival Florida State to just 95 total yards in a 21-7 loss in late November.

"Our defense, we always had it there. We just never brought it together until a couple of games ago," Floyd said. "We played as one, and we played with some excitement."

Linebacker Jon Bostic said it's proof that while there may be plenty of questions about the offense heading into the 2012 season, there shouldn't be any about the defense. Nineteen of the 22 players on the two-deep depth chart will be back.

"We want to prove we're one of those top defenses in the country [next season]," Bostic said. "We know it starts now. We're not going to wait till the summer time or wait until next fall in two-a-days."

Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at espndirocco@gmail.com or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.