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College football: Florida 14-Georgia 10

Gators find winning formula

By JOHN ROMANO
Published October 30, 2005


JACKSONVILLE - Sometimes, the only way to win is to admit defeat.

This is why the hotshot quarterback left his pride behind, and confessed to coaches how awkward he felt in the option offense.

This is why the offensive genius took the playbook that had made him famous and stripped it nearly bare in two weeks.

And this is how Florida came to beat Georgia 14-10 in a game that may have saved a season and prolonged a honeymoon.

It was far from pretty, but it was darned impressive.

Impressive in the sense that Florida coach Urban Meyer was willing to acknowledge his famed spread option offense was not working.

So, in one memorable afternoon, the Gators transformed into a different team. They cut back on the option. They ran plays under center. They used two-back sets, and even incorporated a tight end.

Heaven help us, they looked like an SEC team.

"We don't love the offense as much as we love winning," offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said.

Do not take this lightly. It is not often a coach admits his plan is not working. It is even more rare to see one willing to adjust in midseason. Trust me, the fairways are filled with coaches who refused to adopt or adapt.

"Urban is a smart guy," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "He's got tremendous pride in his offense, but it's not an ego thing with him. He wants to win, and he'll do what it takes to win.

"He's not jamming square pegs into round holes."

That, of course, had been the criticism.

That Meyer insisted on turning Chris Leak into an option quarterback when the offense clearly did not suit him.

In retrospect, Meyer had been in a nearly impossible situation. It was the spread option had that gotten him noticed as a head coach, and so it was expected to be a large part of his repertoire at Florida.

The problem is he inherited a classic dropback passer. Leak has neither the speed nor experience to effectively run an option attack.

So, for six uneasy weeks, they faked it. Leak pretended he was enjoying the offense. Meyer pretended Leak was just a tweak or two from success.

All pretenses were finally dropped, or perhaps sacked, after the LSU game two weeks ago. Florida was in trouble, and Meyer was not going to keep pushing the same buttons in the hope the offense would suddenly click on.

With a bye week to prepare, the coaches gathered and began throwing out ideas. Every piece of offense Meyer and his staff used at Utah and Bowling Green was examined. Then they began to pick and choose the parts that fit.

Meanwhile, Mullen pulled Leak aside. He had to know which plays the quarterback liked, and which made him uncomfortable.

The conversation was not easy. For Leak to say he was unhappy with option plays was the same thing as admitting his weakness.

Eventually, they arrived at common ground. The Gators would keep more running backs in the game to stop defenses from blitzing. They would run quicker pass routes. They would use more downhill running plays.

"We just kept peeling back," Mullen said, "and focusing on what might work."

The offense still is not potent. Much of the success in the first quarter could probably be attributed to Georgia's shock at UF's new-look offense.

Once the Bulldogs got accustomed to what Florida was doing, the Gators never again saw the end zone.

Still, the offense did enough. It avoided costly turnovers and milked the clock when it could. In other words, it let the defense pick out the stars.

"You know what I'm starting to figure out?" Meyer asked rhetorically. "You've got to do what you've got to do to win games in this conference."

Do not take that as some type of surrender. Meyer is not likely to abandon the spread option. It just needs further revision.

Maybe that's because UF's personnel is not a perfect match. Maybe that's because the SEC has too many athletes to run that wide open.

Whatever the reason, Meyer and his staff have to continue searching for a happy medium. A place where their innovations and their quarterback's skills align. And now that they've shown a willingness to get away from the option, the Gators may slowly re-introduce it to keep defenses guessing.

"Some of our strengths at Utah aren't our strengths now," Mullen said. "So we'll keep mixing and matching to find out what's going to work best."

They are not being stubborn. Nor are they making decisions based on pride and ego.

They have learned that being a genius does not necessarily mean you use more formations or shifts or fancy plays than the other guy.

Really, there is only one foolproof plan for genius.

Winning.

[Last modified October 30, 2005, 01:14:16]


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