GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It was always going to take a little time with this young Florida defense. Time to mature, time to gel together and time to embrace a new identity without so many familiar faces from years past.
And maybe, just maybe, that time has arrived.
Overshadowed by the 19-17 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday, overshadowed by the reverberating frustration within the fan base about the direction of this team and this program, the Gators delivered their best defensive performance of the fall in that game.
The Aggies came in averaging 34.3 points and ranked third in the SEC in total offense at 424.8 yards per game. But against Florida they managed only 263 yards — or about 45 below their previous season-low, which came against No. 1 Alabama.
Florida had allowed just 10 points through three quarters before its special teams miscues and the offense’s inability to stay on the field took their mounting toll.
Texas A&M added three field goals in that final quarter to seize the game, starting the first of those drives at the 35-yard line after Eddy Pineiro’s kickoff sailed out of bounds. The Gators gave up a 40-yard completion on the next play, but they buckled down from there, minimizing the damage.
The Aggies got the ball right back, though, after a quick Florida three-and-out gave the defense no respite. Texas A&M got as close as the Gators’ 7, but Florida held firm from there while maintaining a 1-point lead at the time.
The real back-breaker was the go-ahead field goal drive, which started a little more than 3 minutes later at the Gators’ 39 after Florida mistakenly punted it to standout returner Christian Kirk, who brought it back 43 yards. The Gators gave up only 24 yards on that drive, but it was still enough for the Aggies to boot the game-winning field goal.
The defense no doubt wore down a little in the end, but it was nonetheless a fine performance from a unit that seems to be finding its swagger.
“I mean, I feel like [the] defense always does enough. I’m a defensive player, so that’s just how I feel,” defensive end CeCe Jefferson said.
These last two weeks in particular, the Florida defense definitely did its part, holding back-to-back SEC West opponents under 20 points.
Florida moved up 14 spots in the national rankings for total defense, to 41st overall at 354.8 yards per game allowed.
Since giving up 433 yards to Michigan in the season opener and 442 to Tennessee, the Gators have held their last four opponents to an average 313.5 yards per game, with none of those teams going for more than 341.
That adjusted stat would rank 21st nationally.
No, the Gators aren’t the top-10 defense they’ve been in recent years, but they are showing they also aren’t the one that struggled out of the gates this fall.
The defensive line remains the tone-setter. Defensive tackle Taven Bryan (7 tackles, 1.5 sacks) was the kind of disruptive force against Texas A&M that many forecasted him to be this season. The loss of defensive end Jordan Sherit (5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 9 quarterback hurries in 6 games) to a serious hip injury is a blow because he was playing the best football of his Gators career. But the depth at that spot is the best on the team, with Jefferson (7 TFL, 2.5 sacks), Jachai Polite (5 TFLs, 2 sacks) and Jabari Zuniga (5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) plenty capable of covering his absence.
Middle linebacker David Reese ranks tied for sixth in the SEC in tackles (53) while every player ahead of him but one has played an extra game.
And the secondary has found a good formula with senior Duke Dawson sliding back to nickel in five-back sets as freshmen Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson continue to form the foundation of what projects to be a dynamic cornerback duo for years to come.
The biggest question on defense is at the safety spot, but sophomore Jeawon Taylor stepped in for injured veteran Nick Washington and made his first interception last week. And Chauncey Gardner Jr. has at least made some strides on his tackling woes of late.
In this space last week, the point was made that Florida’s defense was well behind the pace of its highly-rated previous iterations.
It’s only fair to now acknowledge that the unit may really be turning the corner halfway through the season.