By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Defenders score or set up 18 Gator points.
GAINESVILLE - If defense wins championships, Florida fans should take heart.
If scoring is a team effort, not the major responsibility of the offense, the Gators are still in good shape.
Forget the hoopla that surrounded coach Urban Meyer's offense during the first nine months he was in Gainesville.
After Saturday's 35-9 win over Mississippi State, it appears whatever remaining championship aspirations the Gators have will require relying on special teams and defense. Actually, they already do. Eighteen of the Gators' 35 points Saturday were scored or set up by their defense and special teams: two safeties, two punts downed inside the 1, a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, six sacks, three interceptions and one fumble recovery.
"It was a great defensive performance," Meyer said. "And special teams had, arguably, its best day."
They couldn't have picked a better time because the offense continues to struggle and injuries are mounting.
Quarterback Chris Leak did not practice last week and played with a badly bruised right throwing shoulder. Running back DeShawn Wynn played sparingly because of a shoulder injury. Receiver Jemalle Cornelius did not play because of an ankle injury, and center Mike Degory played with a sprained MCL in his knee and an ankle injury.
Florida (5-1, 3-1 SEC) didn't get its first touchdown until 6:16 left in the first half, and that, too, was compliments of its defense and special teams. After a three-play, 2-yard drive, Mississippi State's Jonathan Lowe fumbled an Eric Wilbur punt and Florida safety Reggie Nelson recovered. That set up Wynn's 13-yard touchdown run for a 12-3 lead. At halftime, Wilbur had more yards punting (199) than the Florida offense (172). Florida finished 4-of-13 on third down, and its only other offensive scores were a 15-yard pass from Leak to Dallas Baker (who had a career-high 123 yards) and a 3-yard run by Leak.
The Gators generated 480 yards of offense, and Leak was 18-of-33 for 244 yards and two interceptions. But ... "It's very misleading," Meyer said. "A lot of it was after the fact."
Mississippi State, last in the SEC in offense coming in, was held to 243 yards, 132 coming on a 76-yard touchdown run by Jerious Norwood and 56-yard pass from Michael Henig to Keon Humphries that set up a missed 35-yard field goal with no time left before halftime.
"We've got to work on stopping those big plays," said senior defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who had a game-high 10 tackles.
The defense also altered Mississippi State's game plan. With 4:24 left in the first half, Mincey and linebacker Brandon Siler hit quarterback Omarr Conner, injuring his sternum. Conner did not return and was replaced by Henig, a freshman. "Florida brought the house," said Henig, who was 9-of-20 for 119 yards. "Some of their reads were a little quicker than I expected. They were sending safeties, corners, linebackers and anyone else they could."
By halftime, the defense and special teams had accounted for five of Florida's 12 points, including Chris Hetland's 44-yard field goal. "It's all part of accountability," Mincey said. "That's a big part of this team coming together. Everybody is starting to depend on each other, and we're pulling together because we're all in this together. I think the offense will get here. It takes time. This is a new coach. We've got new players, and everything is kind of different.
"But I believe in my teammates. I believe they can get the job done and our defense will get it done, too. We can't run without the offense, and the offense can't run without the defense."
Last weekend, the defense collapsed in a 28-point loss to Alabama. In four of its five wins, the defense has allowed 14 or fewer points. "Of course you want to get everybody going in order to win, offense, defense and special teams," senior cornerback Vernell Brown said. "But we're all a team. As a defense ... it's our job to cover up for the offense when they are not playing well."