Behind Enemy Lines: Florida

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Ziyi Liu

Zach Cunningham (41) during Vanderbilt's 34-10 loss against Florida at Vanderbilt Stadium November 8, 2014.

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

The Vanderbilt Hustler sports editor Robbie Weinstein and the Alligator sports editor Ian Cohen discuss the state of the Commodores and Gators ahead of Saturday’s game.

Robbie Weinstein: It sounds like Austin Appleby is likely to start at QB Saturday as normal starter Luke Del Rio recovers from a knee injury, so how is the UF offense different with Appleby in?

Ian Cohen: Since Austin Appleby is the backup quarterback, it’s normal to assume Florida’s offense would suffer with him starting. Add in the fact that he went 2-9 in 11 starts at Purdue, and I wasn’t expecting much from his first outing of the season last week against Tennessee.

But somehow, Florida’s offense was just as explosive, if not more so, with Appleby playing. Last week, he had five pass plays over 20 yards in the first half alone, including two 40+ yard completions to receiver Antonio Callaway. UF’s players say that Appleby is much more mobile than Luke Del Rio, and that his three-inch height advantage over Del Rio allows him to see the field better.

With all that said, there’s no question Appleby’s play dipped sharply in the second half against the Volunteers and that he’s less accurate than Del Rio. In the second half, he was sacked twice, he threw a pick and he led the offense to just one score. But as long as UF can get the ball in the hands of its playmakers, it won’t matter much if Del Rio or Appleby starts.

RW: What the heck happened in the second half in Knoxville last weekend, and what do you think the chances are of that poor play spilling over into Saturday’s game?

IC: That’s the question we’ve all been looking to answer. After the game, UF coach Jim McElwain blamed it on the players, the players blamed themselves and the fans blamed the coaches. Take your pick.

There’s no question that Florida’s overconfident defense was exposed in the second half. After giving up just three points through the first two quarters, the defense gave up big play after big play, and UF’s talented secondary looked lost.

At the same time, I feel like the coaching staff coached scared. They ran the ball a majority of the third quarter and strayed away from what had gotten them a large lead in the first place: explosive passing plays.

RW: It’s rare to see four running backs each having a significant role in the offense, but Florida has four guys with more than 20 carries this year. How has this split worked out so far?

IC: At times, really well. McElwain is big on spreading rushing duties among several players, so by the time the fourth quarter comes, they’re still relatively fresh.

And, at other times, not so well. The main reason why Florida has a four-man rotation is that none have really stood out so far. Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkite, both just sophomores, are the two most experienced among players receiving carries in UF’s

backfield. But junior college transfer Mark Thompson is the back who attracts the most attention with his size alone — he’s 6-foot-2, 237 pounds. And yet, coaches are in love with freshman Lamical Perine. He broke out with 105 rushing yards against Kentucky in Week 2, but has been quiet since.

Everyone’s been waiting for Thompson to have a breakout game of his own, so I’m interested to see if that finally happens against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

RW: The Gators had only allowed 14 points through three games before allowing 38 to Tennessee, but they still allowed fewer than four yards per carry to UT running back Jalen Hurd. Teez Tabor and Marcus Maye get a lot of recognition in the secondary, but is the defense’s strength actually its play against the run?

IC: You could definitely make that argument. Florida usually uses a 10 player rotation on its defensive line, opting to keep its players fresh rather than leave the best players our there for a majority of the game. Plus, UF ranks eighth in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game at 76.5. But the Gators will have to make do without senior defensive lineman Joey Ivie this Saturday, who won’t play because of a hand injury.

RW: How do you see this one playing out? Make a score prediction, if you like.

IC: The Gators are coming off their worst loss in recent memory, and players and coaches are embarrassed. I’m expecting them to respond in a big way.

Florida wins 27-10.

IC: It seems like Vanderbilt has struggled to find consistency through the early part of the season. The Commodores opened the season with a three-point loss to South Carolina and then had a blowout win, a blowout loss and a one-point overtime victory over the last three weeks. What’s the key to them finding their rhythm?

RW: At this point, Vanderbilt is still looking to put together a complete game on both offense and defense. Even in the MTSU blowout, the defense gave up lots of yards but offset that by forcing turnovers. For the offense, quarterback Kyle Shurmur seems more comfortable in an uptempo scheme. Coach Derek Mason, though, implied this week that a no-huddle offense won’t represent the team’s primary look in the near future. Quite frankly, I’d be surprised if the offense finds much rhythm against Florida’s defense no matter the pace of play.

Defensively, getting more pressure on the quarterback could help. The defense has, for the most part, alternated between struggling against the pass while succeeding against the run and vice versa. Florida’s offense is a lot different from those of Western Kentucky and MTSU, so maybe the Commodores will have more luck. But this is mostly speculation; the inconsistency has been maddening, and there’s no obvious answer as to why it’s persisted.

IC: Gainesville native and Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb is always a big topic of discussion at Florida when these two teams play. At 118 yards per game, how do you’ll think he’ll fare this week against Florida’s run defense?

RW: If the Vanderbilt offensive line plays a good game, Webb will rack up nice yardage numbers. If UF stacks the box, however, I doubt Webb will have much success. Webb is a great player, but I think how he fares will be more of a function of how big a threat the VU passing attack can pose. He could easily break off a long run or two, but I don’t think there will be many holes for Webb this Saturday.

IC: Vanderbilt is 9-19 under coach Derek Mason. Is he on the hot seat? If not, how long until fans start clamoring for his firing if he can’t start winning?

RW: I don’t think Mason is on the hot seat, but that’s not what one might expect simply from listening to fans. Most fans will probably want him fired if the team fails to make a bowl game, and some already do. Vanderbilt’s administration, however, isn’t like others around the SEC. Athletic director David Williams isn’t quick at all to fire coaches, and I’d be shocked if Mason is fired after this year. The earliest I can see Mason getting the boot is after the 2017 season, and I don’t think Williams will pay much attention to pressure from fans.

IC: Prediction for Saturday?

RW: I think Vandy’s defense will have a better showing than in the last three weeks, but that won’t be enough. I’ll go with Florida 27-14.