While Florida and Florida State come into this week’s huge rivalry game on opposite ends of the offensive spectrum, the defenses appear to be mirror reflections of each other.
The Gators come in ranked fourth nationally in total defense giving up 281 yards per game while the Seminoles have been even better giving up only 236 yards per game ranking first in the country. Florida is ranked number one in pass efficiency defense while the Seminoles come in at number three. Florida State is ranked number one in rushing defense giving up a meager 76 yards per game while Florida is sixth giving up only 95 rushing yards per game. In scoring defense the Gators are ranked third giving up 11.7 points per game while the Seminoles are fifth at 13.1 points per game. Finally in third down efficiency the Seminoles are first at 25% and the Gators are second at 26.25%. The list goes on and on but suffice it to say Saturday’s game figures to be a defensive slugfest similar to the 1991 game won by the Gators 14-9.
Florida State comes in at 10-1 ranked #10 in the BCS and champions of the ACC Atlantic Division. Defensively they are led by defensive end Bjoern Werner, 6’4″ 225, who is a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy given annually to the best defensive player in the nation. Werner is quick off the ball and is equally adept at shutting the edge on outside runs, batting down passes, or rushing the passer. He currently has 8 quarterback sacks and 6 batted passes.
The defensive line is the strength of the Seminole defense and despite the loss of leading NFL prospect Brandon Edwards in the preseason they haven’t missed a beat which is a testament to the amount of depth they have on the line. This defensive line is very similar to the SEC lines they’ve played this year such as LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Georgia.
“Their very athletic,” Muschamp said of the Seminoles defensive line. “They’ve got girth, they’ve got size, they’ve got speed they’ve recruited, they got a lot of depth. They throw a lot of guys in there and play, and play well.”
“When you lose a guy like Brandon Jenkins to start the season and you’re able to still play at a high level and rush the passer well with four guys rushing it says something about your recruiting. So they do a good job, very similar to what we’ve seen this season.”
Defensive line is probably the deepest unit on the roster with senior tackles Anthony McCloud and Everette Dawkins as well as senior ends Cornelius Carradine and Toshman Stevens. Last season sophomore defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan came off the bench to lead the interior lineman with 30 tackles and 6 for loss and was named to the freshman All-American team. They literally have a 12 man rotation they use every game which allows their guys to stay fresh into the fourth quarter.
“There’s a lot of potential and it’s a very talented group,”FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said. “I’m expecting them and pushing them to take their game to the next level.”
Florida counters with a very deep and athletic line as well. Juniors Shariff Floyd and Dominique Easley, senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter, along with senior ends Larentee McCray and Earl Okine lead the way for this defense. True freshman Jonathan Bullard and Danter Fowler, Jr have really come on lately as they get more experience in the system and along with junior college transfer Damien Jacobs and sophomore Leon Orr provide valuable depth.
In addition to being very deep, both lines have speed and athleticism as well. The stats really tell the story at this point of the season as both lines are adept at stopping the run, rushing the passer, and wreaking havoc on opposing offensive game plans.
“They both have dominating fronts; guys that control the line of scrimmage,” FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “You go into all your great defenses, when you look at them they are dominating up front.”
At linebacker Florida has a couple of really good ones in senior Jon Bostic who is playing the best football of his career and junior Jelani Jenkins who has battled injuries but is important to the Gators scheme. Guys like sophomore Neiron Ball, who returned this season after battling through a career threatening condition, sophomore Michael Taylor and true freshman Antonio Morrison provide quality depth and each brings a little something different to the table.
Bostic, already the unspoken leader of this defense, was challenged in the offseason by defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to step up his level of play in his last season in Gainesville has really responded. After adding 12 pounds of muscle in the offseason in new strength coach Jeff Dillman’s program, Bostic is stronger, faster, and plays big in the run game, shedding blocks and stopping running backs for losses or short gains. More importantly he covers tight ends and crossing routes like a cornerback, tipping passes and making interceptions and is, perhaps, the teams best blitzer.
“What a great example for our young players of a guy that listened and was a really good football player last year,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “(He) certainly has taken the next step and is playing really good football at linebacker here at Florida.”
Florida State counters with a deep and very athletic linebacker corps as well. Led by junior weakside linebacker Christian Jones, 6’4″ 230, and senior middle linebacker Vince Williams, 6’1″ 250, this unit is fast and physical. They cover the run sideline to sideline and protect the middle of the field in pass coverage like headhunters. Fullback Lonnie Pryor described Christian Jones this way,
“He’s a physical guy, he’s big, he’s long, he’s strong, he’s a tough guy to block.”
He might as well have been describing the whole of FSU’s linebacking corps as well as that of Florida as well. Mirror images.
The defensive backfield for the Seminoles, like the defensive line, is loaded with future NFL stars. It is another deep and talented unit led by junior safety Lamarcus Joyner, junior Xavier Rhodes, and sophomore cornerback Nick Waisome, this unit is tough to pass against and are equally dominant in run support. Despite losing senior all everything corner Greg Reid to dismissal, this unit hasn’t shown any loss of talent with guys like freshman Ronald Darby and sophomore Karlos Williams stepping up and providing solid depth.
The FSU defensive backs held one of the ACC’s top receving duos, Duke’s Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon (soon to be the ACC’s all-time leading receiver), to 5 catches for 28 yards. Afterward, Lamarcus Joyner said,
“That was the game plan to try to contain Vernon. He’s a great player. To be able to give him his worst game just says alot about our defense and what we’re capable of.”
Florida counters with a dominating defensive backfield led by hard hitting junior safety Matt Elam, senior safety Josh Evans, junior corner Jaylen Watkins as well as sophomore cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy. Elam is a beast in run support, Evans was called the most improved player by defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and the other three are probably as good a three man corner rotation as there is in the country. They are active, physical, and able to shut down a passing attack. Versatile De’ante ‘Pop’ Saunders provides quality depth at both corner and safety.
“We play a lot of man match, and man coverage.” Muschamp said on Monday. “A very difficult thing to do especially against some of the skill people we play against.”
“You’ve got to have poise with your back to the ball you’ve got to be able to understand when you play the ball and when you don’t play the ball.”
“Upwards of 80+ percent of what we do (is) to deny the ball to make it more difficult on the offense.”
At Monday’s media conference FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher heaped praise on the Gator defense.
“Scheme-wise they do a great job and physically they are big, they’re strong, they’re athletic,” Fisher said. “They can cover, rush, and play the run extremely well.” Asked if they are the best FSU has seen this year, “by far I would say. They are a really good defense.”
Sounds a lot like the FSU defense as well. Overall, both defenses can best be described as “stifling”. They suck the life out of opposing offenses preventing them from getting in a rhythm or comfort zone. Both defenses are adept at getting a pass rush or controlling the running game with their front four which frees up the other two units to stay in coverage and protect the outside on screens and edge rushes.
Despite the Seminoles coming in with a potent offense, ranked 14th in the nation at 493 yards per game and 7th in scoring at 43 points per game, they have not faced a defense this season with the talent or depth like the Gators. Conversely, the Gators have seemingly faced this type of defense all season long.
Regardless, this one has all the makings of a defensive slugfest that very well could hinge on turnovers or special teams. If you’re a fan of high flying offenses like we’ve seen at Oregon and West Virginia you might want to sit this one out. If you like old fashion defensive battles ala Vince Lombardi then this just might be your ticket.