In the SEC, the new offense is defense

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When Florida paid Urban Meyer all that moolah to bring his trendy spread offense to Dixie, punting from the opponent's 28 yard line was not supposed to be part of the plan.

But with Steve Spurrier as my witness, there were the Gators kicking the ball away from just outside the red zone Saturday evening. Somewhere, Danny Wuerffel was fainting and Rex Grossman was rubbing his eyes, wondering if this was for real.

It was for real. It was understandable, in the context of this game. And given the current climate in the Southeastern Conference, it was right in line with conventional wisdom.

As Meyer explained after his Gators' 14-10 slog past Georgia, "You know what I'm figuring out in this conference? You've got to do what you've got to do to win the game."

What you've got to do these days in the SEC is this: hunker down and play every game like it's the Battle of the Marne. Trench warfare. Offensive movements measured in inches, not yards. Play defense. Play field position. And your gameplan had better be lower risk than 20-year savings bonds.

It's not pretty. It's not exciting. But that's the ways the games are being played in the South right now.

Spurrier is back in the SEC, but he might not recognize the place. The offensive revolution he spawned in the 1990s is history in 2005, replaced by a nostalgic backpedal to the Pat Dye days.

Points are out. Punts are in.

Back in August, who would have predicted that Florida would score a total of 30 points against Tennessee and Georgia -- and win both games?

Here in October, it's utterly believable.

Since the calendar flipped over from September, exactly one SEC loser has scored more than 20 points. Thirteen SEC losers have scored 10 or less. And now Georgia is among that group, its offense ground down by injury and Florida's inspired defense and play calling so conservative it seemed Bill O'Reilly was on the headset.

Without starting quarterback D.J. Shockley, the Dawgs offense was forced into a shell. And once again, the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was a giant buzz kill for Mark Richt.

The Georgia coach has done great work in five years. He's dominated Tennessee. He's owned South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. But the one Eastern Division team to haunt him has been Florida.

Richt is now 1-4 against the Gators. In four of those five games, his Bulldogs have scored 13 points or less.

Saturday Richt was forced into a ground-bound gameplan. And even down 14-3 at halftime, that never changed.

Georgia opened the second half with a 10-play drive that was 100 percent running plays. On second and 14, Richt called a handoff. On third and 11, he called a draw play -- and it worked for a surprise first down. On third and seven he went back to the well with a quarterback draw by Joe Tereshinski and it was stuffed for no gain. Then the Bulldogs missed a 40-yard field goal.

In the fourth quarter, down 14-10, Georgia went on an 11-play drive that featured 10 runs. Despite needing a touchdown to win, Richt played for the field goal.

He called a handoff on second and 18 from the Florida 41, followed by another quarterback draw on third and 16.

"They get into second-and-long and third-and-long, you've got to play pass," Florida linebacker Brandon Siler said.

Even with the Gators playing pass, Georgia couldn't get it done with the run. After those mystifying calls -- the Dawgs' national championship hopes were on the line, that's all -- kicker Brandon Coutu missed from 52 yards, doinking the right upright.

Then Florida went on an all-running-play drive of its own, culminating in that short-field punt.

"We kind of tightened 'er down in the second half," Meyer said, "because we had to win this game."

Given the lead, the mindset was clearly to make Tereshinski prove he could drive Georgia long distances for scores. This was no time to dazzle with offense; it was time to win with defense.

Meyer's one cut-it-loose moment after halftime came on fourth and two from his own 39, the first possession after Georgia scored its only touchdown. He called a fake punt, and Eric Wilbur ponderously ran it 20 yards for a big first down -- and an even bigger advantage in field position.

"It felt kind of out-of-body," Wilbur said of the run.

The entire tenor of this game seemed out-of-body, when you consider the reps of the head coaches. Meyer was the Spread Master whose Utah and Bowling Green teams rolled up video-game numbers. Richt has been called an offensive genius dozens of times, even though the record books show that Georgia has been a defense-first program during his tenure.

But with Florida floundering in picking up Meyer's offense and Shockley unavailable, the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was stirred by a conservative straw. There were 79 running plays and 42 passes.

But give the Gators credit for this: After losing to LSU to fall to a disappointing 5-2, they sucked it up and used their off week to make some offensive alterations.

Instead of putting the ball in quarterback Chris Leak's hands and having him run the ball, he carried it just three times until knee-down time at the end. The option was largely phased out. So was the empty-backfield look.

In an effort to make Leak more comfortable, Florida kept in extra blockers on pass plays, dialed up shorter routes and rolled him out. They brought the tight end into the offense and utilized an H-back to add power to the running game.

The result was an 80-yard drive for a touchdown to open the game -- the first time Florida had scored on its opening possession all year. Then the Gators followed it up by forcing Georgia into a three-and-out, and drove 41 yards for a second TD.

Asked how much of the first two drives were based on the off-week tweaks, Meyer said, "I think the whole thing."

That 14-0 lead proved insurmountable. In today's offensively challenged SEC, two touchdowns tend to be more than enough to win.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.