In unusual SEC season, defense is becoming a punchline

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask (11) pass down field during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Texas A&M, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. in College Station, Texas.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s offense is potent enough to win championships. Its defense is porous enough to lose every game.

The 10th-ranked Gators found out how little margin for error they have in last week’s 41-38 loss at Texas A&M. With a defense giving up nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns a game, Florida’s preseason title hopes are in jeopardy.

Players and coaches insist they’re not pointing fingers. There’s no need; the stats show which side of the ball has been the main problem. Florida’s defense ranks 13th in the Southeastern Conference and 72nd in the country (only 76 Football Bowl Subdivision teams are currently playing).

“Well, first of all, as a defense we’ve got to take responsibility,” junior defensive tackle Zach Carter said. “Admit our mistakes and we need to come together. Obviously, we’ve been struggling. Now is a great time for us to come together.”

It’s been a weekly debacle, really, with the team’s offensive prowess masking many of the defensive deficiencies.

The Gators (2-1) allowed 613 yards and 35 points in a season-opening win at Ole Miss, which could have put more pressure on the visitors had it not turned the ball over twice in field goal range.

South Carolina wasn’t nearly as effective the following week at Florida Field, but it did manage to run 83 plays thanks partly to converting five times on fourth down. And the Gamecocks might have provided more of a scare had they not dropped half a dozen passes.

The Gators escaped both times with double-digit victories. They weren’t as fortunate against the Aggies, who converted 12 of 15 times on third down, moved the chains on their lone fourth-down attempt, racked up 543 yards and scored on seven of nine possessions.

“It can get frustrating,” Carter said. “We have to brush that off. The thing about being in the SEC, it’s good teams we’re playing every week so we have to have a short memory. … After a loss, I think it lights a fire under guys, a much-needed fire.

“I think we’ll be fine.”

The schedule doesn’t get much easier, if at all, with defending national champion LSU (1-2) up next. The unranked Tigers have been as appalling o defense as Florida while showing the ability to move the ball and score on anyone.

Gators coach Dan Mullen, under fire for wanting to ‘pack the Swamp’ amid a pandemic, suggested personnel and scheme changes could be on tap this week. Defensive tackle Kyree Campbell missed the first three games and is expected to make his season debut, and pass rusher Khris Bogle could return after sitting out last week.

More important could be getting better play from regulars like cornerback Marco Wilson, linebacker Amari Burney, pass rusher Jeremiah Moon and safeties Trey Dean, Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart.

“You’re looking and saying, ‘Are we asking guys to do (the right) things?’” Mullen said. “I think one thing that we spend our time on is, ‘Are we sound or not?’ I know what we’re doing is sound. We’ve got a great coaching staff and I know our scheme is sound. But … what we’ve got to do is make sure we’re moving the guys into the right spots to be able to make plays.”

Something will need to change for Florida to have a shot at running the table and winning the East Division for the first time since 2016. That was the goal coming into a season drastically altered because of COVID-19 concerns.

The Gators missed out on spring practice and had just two days that included live tackling drills between the Orange Bowl in January and the opener last month. Rust was a convenient excuse for Week 1 woes, but the issues have now become a trend.

“We got to get off the field, we got to wrap up, we got to tackle and we got to get to the quarterback and we got to cover,” Moon said. “It’s simple, and we’re not doing that right now. …

“At the end of the day, it’s up to that person to make their mind up if they want to be great. And that’s all it is.”

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