GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis was asked, essentially, if he was having déjà vu of some sort with the defense again carrying the burden for a sluggish Gators offensive attack.
Florida eventually stumbled to the finish line a year ago with three straight losses after a terrific first 11 games, as the offense unraveled at the end.
Davis countered that he doesn’t see that story line repeating.
“It’s tough to see (the offense struggle), but I’m a guy who likes to think positively, you know what I’m saying. I like to keep it real as well, but at the same time you can’t sit back and dwell on the misfortunes of that side of the ball,” he said Saturday night after a 24-10 win over Georgia. “That’s what we did last year and we sank. We saw exactly what happened, so instead of pouting about a bad situation, why not let’s take the game into our own hands defensively?
“We’re going to get tired, things are going to go wrong, but we know the calls, we know what our reads are so we need to go out there and just play our game and execute. No matter what the offense does. We can get a turnover, we can spark them. We’ve just got to keep doing us. We can’t focus on them because the moment we focus on them, that’s when we’re going to slip and that’s when this thing gets out of hand.”
It was a candid comment by perhaps the Gators’ most respected leader and an indication that the defensive players have embraced the mentality that the onus is on them to carry this team to its lofty goals.
Davis wasn’t the only one to speak to that.
“I mean, we love it. That’s just what we do,” redshirt-junior linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “As long as we have a lead, we feel like we can win the game. That’s kind of our mentality.”
With good reason.
Aside from that forgettable second half against Tennessee in Week 4, the Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) have been simply incredible on the defensive side this fall.
Just look at the numbers.
Florida ranks second nationally in allowing only 11.7 points per game, just a hair behind Michigan (11.6) for the top spot.
The Gators also rank second nationally in total defense, holding foes to 239.4 yards per game — again just narrowly behind the Wolverines (231.3).
They are one of only two FBS teams to rank in the top 10 in both pass defense (2nd, 134.3 yards per game) and rush defense (10th, 105.1). The other team is Army, which isn’t facing an SEC schedule.
And not to belabor the point, but the Gators are one of only three teams — along with Alabama and Michigan — to hold three FBS opponents to less than 200 yards this season and are the only FBS team to hold six opponents each to less than 150 passing yards.
So, yes, they seem as equipped as any team to ride their defense week after week.
“We feel like we’re the best defense in the nation,” redshirt-sophomore defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. “So we always set the standard on ourselves. We always work hard to make the offense work harder. We always put them through a hard practice. We push ourselves to be better.”
To this point, at least, these Gators are even better than the great 2015 Florida defense that finished 8th nationally in yards allowed (310.2 per game), 11th in scoring defense (18.3 points per game) and had five players selected in the NFL draft with another catching on as an undrafted free agent.
Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio isn’t surprised in the least. Nobody has to face the Gators D more than their own quarterback — all summer in preseason camp and throughout each week in practice.
“Yeah, training camp was miserable. Going against them every day was like, ‘God, nobody’s open,'” Del Rio said. “But our coaches kept telling us, ‘You’ve got two first-round corners, you’ve got a first-round safety, a first-round linebacker. It’s loaded.’ And they’ve played really well as a team, and Coach Collins has done such an amazing job at facilitating that much talent into a scheme that allows them to utilize their abilities on every play.”
Yes, credit Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins for what he has done in his two seasons in Gainesville.
Gators coach Jim McElwain had told the story during his appearance on “Gator Talk” on Thursday of how he had in the back of his mind that if he landed a big-time head coaching job, as he did here, that he knew Collins was a guy he wanted to pursue.
And in Collins, in turn, jumped at the opportunity.
“I can remember making that phone call to him and he said, ‘Coach, I’ll be there.’ I said, ‘Hold on now, I’m not even there yet,'” McElwain said.
Former Gators coach Will Muschamp recruited a lot of the team’s current defensive standouts, but Collins is certainly getting the most out of them.
His defense held Georgia to 164 yards. To put that in perspective, the Bulldogs’ season-low entering the game was 355 — more than double that. And 75 of those yards Saturday came on one touchdown drive in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs managed just 21 rushing yards on 19 carries despite a star-studded backfield.
Overall, Florida forced Georgia into three-and-outs on 7 of its 13 drives, along with two four-play drives that ended in turnovers on downs.
“The sky’s the limit for us, man. If we keep just doing what we’re doing, I mean, we can accomplish anything regardless of anything,” Clark said.
Aside from a blowout win over Kentucky (and the loss at Tennessee, obviously), the defense has had to spark this team in conference play to this point.
Florida managed a 13-6 win at Vanderbilt despite getting only one touchdown and totaling just 236 yards.
In the next game against Missouri, the Gators had managed just two field goals until late in the first half when star junior cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson broke the game open with back-to-back interception returns for touchdown. The offense eventually would pile up 523 yards, but who knows what kind of game it would have been if not for those defensive touchdowns and the resulting momentum swing.
And against Georgia, the Gators mustered a season-low 231 yards and set up the Bulldogs for one of their two scores (ultimately a field goal) with an early interception. Florida was able to take advantage of excellent field position most of the game and didn’t have — or need — a drive longer than 56 yards.
The offensive concerns aren’t near as severe as they were at the end of last season, though.
The Gators averaged just 12.8 points over their final six games last fall and just 8.0 points over the final three — the regular-season finale with Florida State, the SEC championship game against Alabama and the bowl game with Michigan.
Del Rio has had a couple of underwhelming games since returning from a knee injury and Florida ranks just 75th nationally with 398.6 yards per game, but the offense is not hopeless. Florida racked up 20 first downs Saturday and has shown flashes of potential.
Either way, the Gators defense is showing no signs of letting up, and at this point maybe that is how this team has to win if it wants to realize its big-picture goals.
“They’re playing at a high level, and yet here’s the challenge — can they sustain the level that they’re playing at,” McElwain said Saturday night. “We’ll get a chance to do it again next week.”