tampabay.com

Offensive line sets tempo

By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published October 30, 2005


JACKSONVILLE - With a bead of sweat rolling down the side of his head, an exhausted Florida center Mike Degory wore a satisfying look on his face as he walked through the tunnel at Alltel Stadium early Saturday evening.

And who could blame him?

After the Gator offense foundered in recent losses to Alabama and LSU, Degory and his mates on the line had been the subject of heavy criticism. But in Saturday's 14-10 win over previously unbeaten and fourth-ranked Georgia, they arguably were the game's unsung heroes.

"That," Degory said, "was our best game."

To those who didn't see the performance, such a statement might be difficult to comprehend. That's because the Gators were unable to gain 300 total yards, couldn't put together four solid quarters and likely failed to ignite genuine enthusiasm from fans for first-year coach Urban Meyer's spread offense.

But this game had a different feel than its predecessors. This time, the line showed fight. This time, it exceeded expectations.

"We played consistent," Degory said. "That was the difference."

The timing couldn't have been better. Georgia entered with the country's 14th-ranked defense, one that allowed 109 rushing yards a game and had 21 sacks.

Given Florida's poor offensive performances against quality teams this fall, there was little reason to believe things would change. But with a week off, Florida found its focus. It minimized the option and simplified its offense. And the line, which many believed before the season would be among the conference's best, established itself from the start.

On Florida's opening drive, the Gators scored a touchdown after going 80 yards on 13 plays. Their next possession covered 41 yards on four plays and resulted in another score.

On those series, the line couldn't have played better. Running lanes opened that didn't exist in earlier games. And quarterback Chris Leak, pressured heavily in each of Florida's defeats, had ample time to throw.

"That really set the tempo for the whole game," Meyer said.

The line was far from perfect. After all, Florida didn't score in the game's final 54 minutes. But there appeared to be many positives for the much-maligned group.

For starters, Florida established a running game, rushing for 153 yards on 37 carries behind the efforts of DeShawn Wynn (19 carries, 109 yards) and Markus Manson (nine carries, 49 yards). Not bad, considering Florida entered averaging 146.6 rushing yards on only 3.9 yards a carry, the bulk of which came against its lesser-quality opponents.

Once again, the passing game, was at best, average. But far more impressive than Leak's numbers (15 of 20 for 108 yards) was this: The Gators allowed one sack. That's it. Not only that, but Leak was rarely even pressured.

With time winding down, the line once again went to work. From the Gators' 35 midway through the final quarter, Florida drove to the Georgia 28 (the key play was a 22-yard Manson run made possible by a sizeable hole), and while the series didn't result in any points, it consumed valuable time off the clock.

A few minutes later, the Gators were celebrating.

And Degory and company were savoring the moment.

"We have a lot more to improve on," he said. "But we're feeling confident."