The 103rd meeting between Florida and Georgia went a lot like the 102nd did. Both offenses relied heavily on the run game, and there wasn’t much creativity in the early stages of the game. But, just like last year, a big special teams play swung the momentum in Florida’s favor — last year on a fake field goal, and this year, scoring from a muffed punt.
Losing quarterback Will Grier for the season was a big loss, which was evident even in victory on Saturday. Gators coach Jim McElwain has done a great job in getting the most out of his players this season, and did so again despite quarterback Treon Harris’ struggles.
There’s a saying in football that a quarterback’s two best friends are his running back and his tight end — a strong running game can help take the pressure off a quarterback, and tight ends often provide the best mismatch for the easiest throws. McElwain used both to manage an offense that just needed to hold onto the ball to win.
The Florida-Georgia rivalry is so historic it has its own Hall of Fame. Former Gators running back Fred Taylor is in that Hall of Fame, and his son, Kelvin, is well on his way to joining his father. Taylor has 394 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his three games against UGA. His performances against the Bulldogs are consistent, but this season, he’s taken some of his UGA-game production and duplicated it in each of Florida’s other contests this year.
Just how is Taylor able to make his mark week-in and week-out? The answer to that lies in the trust this new coaching staff has in his abilities.
The screenshot above is from the 2014 Florida-Kentucky game. The takeaway here is the formation: Five offensive linemen, the quarterback in the shotgun, and the running back a step behind and to the left of the quarterback, which allows the back to step into a handoff.
This should be our base of knowledge as we take a look at how Florida has developed its offense to finally suit Taylor’s style of running.
This Vine shows how the screenshot above played out. Under Muschamp, Florida was very much a run downhill, between-the-tackles kind of rushing offense. Plays were designed to put most of the responsibility for success on the offensive line. They demanded a good initial push up front from all five linemen while limiting the possibility for negative or no-gain plays by having the running backs focus on one gap.
Now, this approach is suited for 6-foot-2, 225-pound running backs like former Gator Matt Jones, but it doesn’t get the most out of a back like Taylor, who is much smaller. The problem with the former running strategy was that it stayed the same for both backs.
Taylor’s touchdown run at the of the UGA game gave us a great look at how he’s been allowed to use his instincts as a runner, and he’s been told to run in a way which gives him the most success.
If you watch the Vine a few times, you see the two possible gaps form at the line of scrimmage. One is the left side B gap — between the left tackle and the left guard (which was plugged up) — and the other is the right-side B gap.
Last year, I think Taylor would have tried to force his way into the intended gap on the left between the linemen and get whatever yards he could — two, maybe three. This season, as we’ve seen before, he bounces to the outside knowing there was both blocking help and more space since the box was so cluttered.
The skills which tied this run together were Taylor’s quick feet and his burst off cuts, an area in which he excels. When that type of player is forced to run between the tackles, the space given to make use of quick feet and acceleration is small. I’m not saying those skills don’t come in handy when running up the A and B gaps, but it’s evident more space creates increased potential on runs for backs like Taylor.
Creating lanes, not gaps
This season, the primary focus of Florida’s run offense isn’t on the offensive line winning its battle, but more on letting Taylor do what he does best. Offensive line production is still important, but small failure up front will no longer doom a play as it did under Muschamp. This season we’re seeing more room for error on the offensive line because of the use of tight ends.
This Vine is from Florida’s game against Florida State last season. As the year progressed, the Gators did try to get tight ends in motion more often to assist the offensive line. However, though the thought process was there, the creativity was not.
In that play, the tight end moved over only to seal off the edge right in front of him. The problem with that is it was too obvious. When the tight end motioned down, an extra Florida State player stepped towards the line of scrimmage because he knew it meant a running play was coming. That freed him up to blitz right off the snap. Because of that, more bodies are there to occupy the small space, which, again, doesn’t aid Taylor’s running style.
This season, Florida is using its tight ends in unique ways, and not just as receivers.
The play above isn’t an exact parallel of the one against Florida State, but it does highlight the differences in strategy. Moving a tight end across the line to seal the opposite edge is something McElwain has been doing since day one. This simple change is a big reason why Taylor already has more yards and more touchdowns than he had in either of his last two seasons.
Creating a gap is a lot of work. It requires dominance in both strength and leverage at multiple positions on the offensive line, and if one assignment is blown, it could negate other good blocks. So instead, McElwain doesn’t focus on creating gaps, but on creating lanes.
The difference between creating a gap and creating a lane is that gaps are (mostly) between the tackles, where space is limited. Lanes, on the other hand, allow a running back to take advantage of any open space.
In the Vine above, the entire play design is made to get away from traditional inside gaps and essentially create space where there are less people. This does not require perfection along the offensive line, but instead puts more of the play’s success in the hands of two players: tight end Jake McGee as a lead blocker, and Taylor making the right move in space.
Less is more with the Gators under their new head coach. McElwain is letting his playmakers be the ones to make the plays, and Taylor is reaping the benefits.