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January 2, 2013

Preview: Gators' strength is defense

Louisville's opponent in the Sugar Bowl, No. 3/4 Florida, poses a daunting challenge. It's not a challenge the Cards can't overcome, however.

Those who believe the Cards have little chance note that the last time Florida played a Big East champion in the Sugar Bowl the Gators demolished Cincinnati 51-24 in 2010. But that was a much better Florida team (Tebow) than this one, and this UofL team has Teddy Bridgewater.

This Florida team is good, to be sure. The Gators are 11-1, their only loss to Georgia. They are fifth in the country in total defense, allowing just 338.4 yards per game, sixth in rushing D (97.0 ypg), 16th in passing D (186.4 ypg) and third in scoring D (12.9 ppg). Offensively, they're not so hot, however. They're 102nd in total offense (338.4 ypg), 35th in rushing (194.5 ypg), 114th in passing (143.9 ypg) and 74th in scoring (26.8 ppg).

As the above stats make clear, defense drives the Gators, and the running game drives the offense. They have run the ball almost twice as many times as they have passed it (509 rushes, 259 passes) and average 4.6 yards per rush.

Four Gators earned Associated Press All-America honors, with three of those on defense. Junior safety Matt Elam was named to the first team, and named to the third team were junior tackle Shariff Floyd and sophomore punter Kyle Christy. Senior placekicker Cale Sturgis made the second team.

The Gators will be making their 22nd consecutive bowl appearance and will be seeking their fifth straight bowl victory. This will be their eighth straight January bowl, the longest active streak in the nation, and their seventh BCS bowl, tied for first in the nation.

OFFENSE
Sophomore Jeff Driskel (6-3, 237) has completed 140 of 263 passes for 1,471 yards (10.3 yards per completion, 139.7 a game) and 11 touchdowns with just one interception. He has run the ball 108 times for 409 yards (3.8 per attempt, 37.2 per game) and four TDs, with a long of 70 yards.

The top rusher is senior Mike Gillislee (5-11, 208) -- 235 rushes for 1,104 yards (4.7 per rush, 92.0 per game) and 10 TDs, with a long of 46 yards. He's also caught 15 passes for 145 yards (9.7 a catch, 12.2 a game) and one TD.

Freshman Matt Jones (6-2, 226) averages 27.5 rushing yards a game (5.3 yards per attempt) and has scored two TDs. Junior Trey Burton (6-3, 228) averages 15.1 yards a game (6.9 per attempt) and has scored twice, and senior Omarius Hines (6-2, 217) averages 12.3 yards a game ( 8.2 per attempt) and also has scored twice. Burton has an 80-yard TD run.

The leading receiver is junior tight end Jordan Reed (6-3, 243), who has 44 catches for 552 yards (12.5 a catch, 46.0 a game) and three TDs. Sophomore Quinton Dunbar (6-1, 189 ) has 31 catches (9.9-yard average, 25.5 a game, four TDs), and two receivers have 20 catches each -- senior Frankie Hammond (6-0, 187) with 13.6 yards a catch, 22.8 a game and three TDs, and Hines at 10.4 a catch, 17.3 a game.

The O-line is big and has enabled the Gators to run between the tackles, led by junior right guard Jon Halapio (6-3, 325). But it has surrendered 36 sacks, 105th in the country.

Junior Josh Debose (5-11, 189) averages 9.3 yards a punt return.

Sturgis, a repeat All-American, has made 23 of 27 FG attempts (85.2 percent), with three of his four misses a result of blocks. He is 3 for 3 from 50 yards or beyond, with a long of 51 yards.

The Gators outscored their opponents 115-30 in the fourth quarter.

DEFENSE
Elam (5-10, 202, Jr.) is tied for 21st in the country with four interceptions. He also is second on the team with 65 tackles and 10 for a loss, including one sack. The Gators have 19 INTs in all but only 25 sacks, tied for 53rd in the country.

The team's leading tackler is senior DB Josh Evans (6-2, 201) with 79, including 4.5 for a loss. He also has two interceptions, as does senior LB Jon Bostic (6-1, 246), who is third on the team with 62 tackles, 6.5 for a loss. Floyd (6-3, 303, Jr.) is fifth with 41 tackles but leads with 11 for a loss.

Christy, a sophomore who is from Brownsburg, Ind., averages 46.1 yards a punt, and his net average is 40.66, seventh in the country.

The Gators are first in the country in passing efficiency defense, fourth in third-down conversion defense (28 percent) and tied for fifth in turnover margin (plus-1.42).

STAR Elam because he's a first-team All-American.

TEAM STRENGTH Defense.

TEAM WEAKNESS Passing.

BEWARE Florida likes to use the end-around.

COACHING RESUME
Will Muschamp took the Florida job just two seasons ago and was on the hot seat following his first season, when he was 7-6, which led to much grumbling. This season's 11-1 mark put a halt to that. Overall he is 18-7. Before coming to Florida he was the defensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting at Texas ever since 2008. He also served as defensive coordinator at LSU (2002-04) and Auburn (2006-07).

ALL-TIME SERIES
UofL and Florida have met twice, with the Gators winning both, 13-0 in 1980 and 31-17 in 1992. Both games were in Gainesville.

CUSH PIX
The Cards have a legitimate shot to win this game because of Bridgewater, the second-best QB the Gators will have faced this season (they played Texas A&M and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel). The Cards figure to have trouble running on Florida, but they've won when unable to run. UofL's maligned defense will need to play tougher, especially against the run. Regardless, I'd take the points because I believe the Cards can win.


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