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November 12, 2008

Defense making a difference for Florida

NASHVILLE Brandon Spikes, Florida's imposing middle linebacker, could have gloated like a pro wrestler. He could have bragged, talked trash and beat his chest as thoroughly as the Gators beat Vanderbilt on Saturday night.

Instead, Spikes was so nonchalant, he might have been staving off a yawn.

Even after a 42-14 dismantling of Vanderbilt, which managed two scores only after Florida appeared to lose interest, Spikes had a so-what-else-is-new? attitude. "We felt like we've done that before," he said. "And we can do it again."

Upgrades in the secondary and at defensive tackle have bolstered a unit that was a liability in 2007. Suffocating defensive efforts have become so common this season that Florida might be closing in on a second national championship in three years that is, unless some lingering doubts prove justified and the Gators have issues against the stronger offenses they figure to face in the postseason.

But heading into the final quarter of the regular season, which begins Saturday with a visit from South Carolina, the Gators' defense is starting to resemble the '06 unit that held nine opponents to 14 or fewer points and overwhelmed Heisman winner Troy Smith and Ohio State in the national championship game. Once thought to be a weakness, Florida's defense is flexing its muscle.

The Gators who have no seniors on the two-deep defensive depth chart have allowed just one first-half touchdown in the past five games. They're 14th in the nation in total defense and fourth in scoring defense. They've limited seven opponents to 14 points or less. They've forced 21 turnovers.

Even the defensive coordinator is named Strong.

"I enjoy watching them play now. I enjoy watching the coaches coach," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "You can't say it's the defensive line, you can't say it's the linebackers and you can't say it's the secondary. Collectively, they're all playing very well right now."

Yet there remains a measure of uncertainty.

In August, it was universally accepted that with Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and an array of other offensive weaponry, Florida would be a national championship contender if the defense, a liability in 2007, didn't become a thorn in the lion's paw.

Last season, the secondary was in shambles. Florida ranked 98th in the nation in pass defense and gave up 19 touchdown passes. This season, they lost potential starting strong safety Dorian Munroe and backup John Curtis to knee injuries, which forced the move of Ahmad Black from cornerback.

Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong admitted he had some anxiety about the secondary coming into the season. "When we first started the season, we didn't realize how they would play," he said. "They didn't play well last season, and we were hoping they would this year. I think they got so tired of hearing they were the weak link, and they took it on themselves to get better."

They have.

Black has emerged as a budding star and leads the Gators with five interceptions, two of which he has returned for touchdowns. Freshman Janoris Jenkins has played well on the corner opposite sophomore Joe Haden, who started as a true freshman last season even though he probably wasn't ready.

On the defensive
A look at Florida's defense and where it ranks nationally:
CategoryAverageNCAA rank
Rush defense 108.3 ypg 21st
Pass defense177.9 ypg17th
Total defense286.2 ypg14th
Scoring defense11.9 ppg4th
Forced turnovers21T-26th
3rd-down defense32.8 percent22nd

Defensive tackle was another problem area a year ago, but now has a solid rotation led by sophomore Lawrence Marsh - who dramatically raised his level of play. Last season, he had five total tackles. This season, he has 20 - including 5.5 for losses.

The other starting tackle is sophomore Terron Sanders, who Meyer once referred to as a recruiting mistake. He had four tackles in '07 but already has 18 this season.

"Lawrence has been a pleasant surprise," Strong said. "Black and Sanders didn't play much last year, and now they're contributing and making plays."

The Gators also have been boosted by the play of Ryan Stamper, who filled in at weakside linebacker when Dustin Doe had double hernia surgery. Stamper has been praised as the most reliable defensive player.

Strong said he was encouraged by a 26-3 victory over Miami in which the Gators allowed just 140 total yards. He said they were further validated in a 51-21 win over LSU. "We played well enough against LSU to see how good we could be," Strong said.

But there could be some back-of-the-mind doubts about just how good the competition was. Could Florida's defensive dominance be a byproduct of offensive dormancy?

Seven of Florida's nine opponents currently rank 47th or worse nationally in total offense. Five are 76th or worse. And even the higher-ranking teams have issues. LSU, which is 33rd in total offense, has struggling freshman Jarrett Lee at quarterback. Also, a slew of injuries left Georgia, ranked 22nd, with a makeshift offensive line.

In the SEC Championship Game, Florida will face Alabama, which has one of the nation's premier offensive lines and a solid quarterback in John Parker Wilson.

If the Gators do reach the BCS national championship game, they likely would face a high-scoring Big 12 team.

The only team Florida has faced that didn't have questions at quarterback and had its regular offensive line was Ole Miss, which accumulated 325 yards and scored a game-winning touchdown on an 86-yard pass with 3 minutes remaining in a 31-30 upset.

But Spikes doesn't see that loss as proof that the Gators' defense is vulnerable. Rather, he says it was an awakening.

"After we got beat by Ole Miss, it opened our eyes to stop taking things for granted," Spikes said. "We know what to do and what we're capable of. We have a lot of talent and ability. We just have to take every step and approach it right."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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