Flashy defense, not offense, powers Gators

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Back when Will Muschamp was a young(er) assistant coach, he was giddy about stat sheets.

After every game he’d run off the field and toward the nearest SID for the numbers from the game. He wanted to know what the opposing offense’s rushing numbers were, what its passing numbers were.

He was a little stat happy and figured the better the stats looked, the better his team and his defense was.

Now, with a little bit of age and maturity under his belt, Florida’s head coach doesn’t really pay attention to those sheets of paper. He pays attention to scoreboards and the win-loss columns.

Something says he won’t look too hard at the stat sheet from Saturday’s 33-23 win over Tennessee -- a game that improved Florida and Muschamp to 1-0 in conference play and extended the Gators' dominance over the Vols to seven straight victories.

Through three games, Florida hasn’t been flashy on offense and hasn’t tried to throw a lot of plays and formations out on the field. The offense is methodical and the defense is animalistic. This team will rely on its defense to keep it in ball games, and it will do whatever it needs on offense to get points.

“We’ll line up and run the wishbone if we can win,” Muschamp said. “It’s all about winning to me.

“Do what you gotta do to win the game. You can’t take winning for granted. It’s hard.

“We need to do what we need to do to win games and it’s hard for me to sit there and not take the ball and put in Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Trey Burton’s hands to this point.”

Against Tennessee, those three touched the ball 45 times for 338 of Florida’s 347 offensive yards. Two wide receivers and a tight end combined for four touches.

It’s unconventional, but it’s working, and the Gators don’t seem bothered about who touches the ball as long as they’re productive.

“We’re not selfish,” Burton said. “[The media is] not in the locker room, so they have no clue.”

As long as Florida’s defense is playing like it is, the offense might not have to do much. In the Gators’ first two games, they were dominant but vanilla for the most part. Florida had zero interceptions and two sacks to its name, but was allowing 1.5 points and 174 yards per game.

Against Tennessee, Florida was more exotic, faster and much more intimidating. The Gators registered six tackles for loss, including three sacks, snatched two interceptions (but dropped five), had six quarterback hurries, and eight pass breakups. Tennessee had 279 yards of offense (288 passing, -9 rushing).

The pressure came early and often and Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, who was expected to have quite the show against Florida’s young secondary, was rattled for most of the afternoon.

“We went out and made a point,” Florida defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. “They (the media) were talking a lot of crap all week long how this quarterback is invincible, so we had to go out there and show them that he can be taken down.”

He was taken down again, and again.

The Gators were aggressive, sometimes too aggressive as Florida was flagged for five pass interference calls and a late defensive holding call in the secondary. Muschamp was irate over some calls and agreed with others. He also wasn’t overly upset with them, saying he won’t punish someone for being aggressive.

The penalties might have helped Tennessee climb back into the game, but that won’t keep Muschamp’s players from lightening up.

“I don’t want a call, but we’re going to play aggressive,” Muschamp said. “We’re not gonna play soft, I can tell you that.”

There is no question that there are kinks to work out on both sides of the ball for Florida, but the defense will be a major factor in how far the Gators go this year. The Gators looked to stretch the field a couple of times, but outside of Rainey’s 83-yard catch-and-run, the passing game was pretty intermediate.

But maybe that’s the offense and flash will only come in spurts. One this is for sure, the defense has the mindset of carrying this team in 2011.

“We are going to,” Howard said. “There’s no question about it.”

Edward Aschoff interviews Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins.