Posted: 1:45 p.m. Thursday, May 9, 2013
By Neil Shulman
Long, long ago, Florida's programs and tickets used "The _____ Game" as titles. I guess that's good enough for our season preview. Neil's writing them, and they'll run once a week on Thursdays.
2012 season: 9-4, 6-2 MAC
Coach: Matt Campbell, second season (10-4, also coached 2011 Military Bowl)
Last result vs. Florida: N/A (first meeting)
Series record vs. Florida: 0-0 (first meeting)
Game date: Saturday, August 31, 2013
Game location: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Florida
The Toledo Rockets are proudly part of the MAC — which might as well be the Migraines and Anuerysms Conference for the Gators. Florida has never had any direct contact with Toledo, but in two of the last three years, the Gators opened their seasons against MAC opponents, and came away less than pleased with the result. One of those two games proved to be foreshadowing for a less than stellar campaign and the other one did not. Regardless of how powerful Will Muschamp's Gators think they are, they'd better be careful against Toledo.
The Rockets went 9-4 last year against a rather tough schedule for a MAC team: They took trips to Arizona and Wyoming, and split them, and played eventual BCS bowl participant Northern Illinois on the road, too. All three of Toledo's losses in the regular season were by seven points, and the Rockets were very much in their bowl loss to Utah State, trailing 13-9 in the fourth quarter, before the Aggies' Kerwyn Williams went nuts, scoring three touchdowns in a little more than three minutes, to held secure a comfortable 41-15 victory.
This Toledo offense has the potential to be incredible. Led by dual-threat quarterback Terrence Owens, the Rockets' offense returns nine starters from a unit that produced 31.5 points per game a year ago. Owens will also have four of his starting five offensive linemen return from 2012. The Rockets also return all but one of their skill position players. Their top two receivers, Alonso Russell and Bernard Reedy, tallied more than 2,000 receiving yards a year ago, and their top running back, David Fluellen, came several dozen inches short of 1,500 rushing yards, finishing with 1,498. Make no mistake: This offense will carve the Gators up if they're not ready to play.
No matter how many points the Rockets can put up in the MAC, Matt Campbell knows it's likely not going to translate into the same result against the Gators. So expect Toledo to come out and try to play keep away, much like Lane Kiffin did in 2009. That means lots of short, quick passes to Russell and Reedy, rolling Owens out of the pocket, and of course, giving Fluellen a heavy dose of carries to try and drain the clock as much as possible. The Rockets will play the game thinking 28 points wins it, and the best way to do that is to put together one long, methodical touchdown drive per quarter.
Florida doesn't want to let that happen, and probably isn't going to let that happen
It hasn't really been noted, but in their last two games against the MAC, the Gators' defense was really dominant aside from one long drive by Bowling Green. Zac Dysert and Matt Schilz went a combined 49-for-93 for 395 yards against the Gators. That was mainly because the Gators' defense harassed them all day and forced key turnovers at the right moments. Expect Muschamp's (and, now, D.J. Durkin's) defense to dial up the pressure and play aggressive football all over the field for 60 minutes.
Watch for Marcus Roberson and Louchiez Purifoy to play lots of physical coverage (Muschamp is very tolerant of penalties resulting from overaggressiveness) and try to jump routes. To complement the secondary, the front seven is going to bring heavy pressure to try and force bad throws. If Toledo's offensive line can't consistently give Owens more than three seconds to throw, the Rockets are in trouble.
It's a good thing their offense can score, because the Rockets' defense is a mess. Toledo loses eight starters from a unit that surrendered 28.4 points per game a year ago, including its best player, linebacker Dan Molls. In particular, the defensive line is really going to have trouble getting any penetration against Florida's offensive line.
The secondary allowed nearly 300 passing yards a game, but did produce one bright spot: Rockets defensive backs picked off 17 passes. (Side note: You may remember Jordan Haden, Joe's brother, who committed to Florida in 2010 before transferring early that fall. He's in Toledo's secondary now, and had two picks in 2012.) But with seniors snagging 10 of those interceptions, it's difficult to find anything to cheer about on the defensive side of the ball.
It's anybody's guess. The standard strategy to winning defense is to get to the QB and force turnovers, but without anything even resembling a pass rush, the Rockets shouldn't be able to get any pressure on Jeff Driskel. Therefore, Driskel should have plenty of time to make good decisions, essentially taking away the opportunity to force turnovers.
Run Matt Jones and wear the Rockets down. Florida showed last year that they are better conditioned than several SEC teams; they are certainly well ahead of a middle of the pack MAC team in that department. Let the Rockets try and bleed the clock, and let the game come down to the fourth quarter; Florida will pick up their style points there.
Part of Florida's problem in 2010 against Miami of Ohio and in 2012 against Bowling Green was that they came out wanting to drop 100 points on the other team, and played like it, without the offense really being equipped to do so. So Florida needs to just tire the Rockets' weak defense out for three quarters, and then Driskel can open it up and play catch with Quinton Dunbar and Latroy Pittman in the fourth.
Jabari Gorman, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Maye (and Cody Riggs, and Keanu Neal, and so on) vs. Alonso Russell and Bernard Reedy. Purifoy and Roberson are certainly expected to win their battles one on one with these receivers more often than Toledo would like, but every now and then, they're going to get beat. How quickly the safeties recognize that they're beat and get over to help out is crucial.
Florida shouldn't have much trouble with Toledo, at least not past the opening drive jitters. I highly doubt that Muschamp will allow his team to take a MAC team lightly, and, even if they do, Florida simply won't allow themselves to lose to a mid-level team in the Swamp. The Gators will know a loss here blows their entire season, and while they may still be slightly complacent, it shouldn't be as bad as it was last year. Toledo may score a touchdown or two, but they can't match the program Will Muschamp has built in Gainesville.
Florida 37, Toledo 13.