On the SEC Coaches Teleconference on Wednesday morning, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said all of their focus during their bye week is on themselves. They’re not going to prepare for their top-10 match-up with the Gators (7-1, 4-1 SEC) until next week.
That statement seems unlikely to be true.
Meanwhile, No. 7 UF isn’t ashamed to admit that while there are some things they’re trying to improve about themselves during their week off, they have started to peak ahead to the No. 10 Bulldogs (6-1, 3-1).
In some ways, it feels like all of the spring practices, offseason workouts, fall practices and the first seven games of the season have led to this game. As soon as the Gators’ 2018 season ended, one question emerged over the others: can they beat Georgia this season and reclaim their throne atop the SEC East?
"This has been a big game for us throughout the whole season,” quarterback Kyle Trask said. “Obviously, you want to look week to week. But Georgia, we know we're going to have to play them eventually. We're really looking forward to it and hoping we can get a big win."
Doing so will be far from easy. Defensively, Florida’s success in this game could begin and end with how well they contain UGA running back D’Andre Swift. Smart has preferred to lean on a strong running game to wear down opposing defenses and minimize possessions since he took over the program in 2017. Still, they seem even more reliant on the running game than usual this season.
In their 21-0 defeat of Kentucky last weekend, Swift rushed for 179 yards. The rest of the team combined for 91 yards. Slow down Swift, and Georgia should have problems moving the ball. Of course, that’s easier said than done. He rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in last year’s game. He could be the first running back off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft.
“When you look at them, they’re really talented upfront,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “They’re guys that push the pile. They probably have the best back in the country. When you look, he can really accelerate. He can take the seam, and he runs to daylight, which really good backs do. They got a really good quarterback [Jake Fromm] that can get them in the right place. The combination of all that makes them a really good team.”
Offensively, the Gators will have to overcome an enormously talented and aggressive defense that ranks near the top of the league in most statistics.
“They’re a very solid defense,” Kyle Trask said. “They got playmakers all around, and I’m sure Coach [Dan] Mullen will put together a great game plan for them.”
All of Florida’s goals for the season are still in front of them. All that stands in the way is Georgia.
“For us, our goal every year is to get to the SEC Championship Game,” offensive line coach John Hevesy said. “That's the SEC team that's in the way. So, [we] don't put any more on this one than it was on South Carolina or Tennessee or Kentucky or whoever else we play. They're the next opponent. All we got to worry about is them and go execute and do our job.”
Running Game Improving
UF’s offensive line has been its weakest link all season, particularly in the running game. Lamical Perine entered the season with fans talking about him possibly turning in a 1,000-yard season. Those thoughts flew out the window quickly.
However, the offensive line has taken big strides over the past three weeks. Against Auburn, LSU and South Carolina – three of the best defensive fronts they will face this season – they’ve averaged 144 yards per game and 4.2 yards-per-carry. They helped create an 88-yard touchdown run by Perine against Auburn and a 75-yard score by Dameon Pierce against South Carolina.
Hevesy said the improvement is simply a result of more consistent execution. All five offensive linemen plus one or two tight ends have to do their jobs well on every play. If even one guy messes up, a potential explosive play could get stopped for two yards, which happened far too often earlier this season.
"It's always encouraging,” Hevesy said. “You see that they're getting it. I think that's the biggest thing. They're starting to understand the little things. We still got to get better at those things, but they're starting to understand what it's going to take to be successful."
Trask said having a dependable running game would make the entire offense even better.
“To have a good run game is good for the whole offense's confidence,” he said. “Being able to have something you can fall back on – let's say the passing game is not working. It all comes back to communication and being able to execute and making sure we're fitting to the right guys."
Bleich Banged Up
Offensive lineman Christopher Bleich, who started the first seven games of the season at right guard, didn’t play against the Gamecocks, which left some fans and media speculating that he had been benched for his poor performances. However, Hevesy said Bleich developed two “disgusting” blisters on the bottom of his feet last Wednesday that kept him out of practice and left him limping on Saturday morning.
“If we had to use him, he would have played, but if we didn’t have to use him, I wanted to save his feet,” Hevesy said.
In his place, Richard Gouraige made his first career start at left guard and Brett Heggie flipped to right guard. Hevesy said he was pleased with how Gouraige played.
“He was able to break his nerve because he was a nervous wreck Friday night and Saturday getting ready to play,” he said. “To me, he just had to go play and be the guy, and it was good for him.”
Grantham High on Henderson
Cornerback CJ Henderson has come under fire by fans over the past couple of weeks for his perceived lackluster play.
Against Auburn, he was part of a miscommunication that would’ve resulted in a touchdown if quarterback Bo Nix hadn’t overthrown Seth Williams. A week later, he let LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase get behind by about 15 yards for 54-yard score that basically sealed the game. Against the Gamecocks, he had tight coverage on Bryan Edwards on a flea flicker but still allowed Edwards to catch the ball. Then he dropped an interception in the end zone on the first possession of the second half.
Henderson was viewed as one of the nation’s premier defensive backs entering the season and a potential top-20 draft pick. Now, some mock drafts have him sliding into the second round. Some fans want to know what’s wrong with him, while others have accused him of “checking out” during his likely final year in college.
However, his defensive coordinator isn’t concerned. Grantham said there’s always going to be some rust to knock off after missing most of four games with an ankle injury. He believes Henderson has improved as a run-stopper and tackler as the season has progressed.
“I think any time you’re a high-profile player that make a lot of plays, people have a certain standard, and then they’re always going to look for things to critique on you,” Grantham said. “Like I said, he’s a really good player. He’s the best player that I’d coached, college or pro. You know, he’s a guy that has improved his tackling from game one to now. He’s going to make plays for us moving forward, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”