Penalties and turnovers have not cost the Gators so far. But they want to reduce them before they do.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2001
GAINESVILLE -- On paper, Florida's game against Vanderbilt appears to be one of those traditional homecoming games: David vs. Goliath.
Florida leads the nation in total offense. Vanderbilt is 105th in total defense. The Gators are 6-1. Vanderbilt is 2-5.
Realistically, it should be much more for the Gators.
In a season in which mistakes have been as much a part of Florida's games as standout offensive and defensive plays, this will be the Gators' final chance to clear up problems before the most daunting stretch of the schedule begins.
"(The mistakes) are something that we definitely try not to do," guard Zac Zedalis said. "We don't go into the ballgame planning on fumbling and throwing interceptions and dropping snaps. It is something we overcame against Georgia.
"Hopefully, it isn't something that we will have against Vanderbilt or other teams. Hopefully, the ball bounces our way or those things don't happen. We have to try to eliminate those mistakes."
Rex Grossman leads the nation in passing efficiency but has thrown nine interceptions, including six in the past two games.
The Gators have committed 19 turnovers through seven games this season (10 interceptions, nine fumbles) compared with 21 for all of last season (12 interceptions, nine fumbles).
They have 74 penalties for 534 yards (76.3 yards per game) this season compared with 93 penalties for 692 yards (57.7 yards per game) for all of last season.
When asked if he's doing something unusual to try to stop the mistakes, coach Steve Spurrier said, "We tell Rex not to throw it right to them; if that's something special. Give them a fight for it. Our guys are trying to knock them down a little bit better. Really, a couple of them haven't been his fault. But we're trying to emphasize holding on to the ball."
Georgia failed to capitalize on the Gators' four turnovers Saturday. And Vanderbilt, 1-13-1 at Florida Field, should not pose a problem. But on the horizon are South Carolina, Florida State and Tennessee.
Recent history shows that when the opponents get tougher, the mistakes prove more costly. Last season, Florida had 14 penalties and three interceptions in its loss to Florida State and two fumbles and an interception in a loss to Mississippi State.
Ten of the Gators' 19 turnovers this year came in the first five games. Nine came in the past two. Florida has had four turnovers in the red zone, including three interceptions.
"I'm sure I do try to force things in the end zone to try to score," Grossman said. "I definitely need to stop that. I have been successful on 24 (touchdowns). We'll see. We've had too many turnovers the last couple of games, and we are working on that. That's pretty much the bottom line." It's not just what the Gators are doing. It also is what they aren't doing.
Last season, Florida finished first in the SEC and second in the nation in turnovers forced with 40. They forced 24 after seven games. This year, the Gators have forced just 11 turnovers in seven games, 11th in the conference and 104th in the nation.
"It has just been one of those years where we can't get them," defensive coordinator Jon Hoke said. "They are trying to get off the mark, but they're just not getting a lot of them. A year ago, we were able to get them three a game, four a game, even five a game. But we just haven't been able to do that this year."
Still, it's not all doom and gloom for the Gators. Florida ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 11.14 points per game. It has outscored opponents 288-78 and is the only team ranked in the top 10 in total offense and defense.
But the players and coaches acknowledge the time has come to eliminate the mistakes or prepare to pay a high cost. "We're trying to get smarter," Spurrier said. "If we do, we have a chance. We are just a floundering bunch of guys the way we make so many mental errors on the field.
"I don't know if we can do it or not. We'll wait and see."