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Saturday, May 21, 2022

UF defense looks to get back on track against Cincy offense

NEW ORLEANS - Mardy Gilyard expects quite a challenge when he lines up against Florida's defense Friday night in the Sugar Bowl.

The Cincinnati senior receiver doesn't believe the Gators are capable of a letdown.

"Their defense is not hyped for nothing," the American Football Coaches Association First-Team All-America selection said. "You hear a lot of times where teams are really, really hyped, and then they come into the game, and they really have a bad showing. That's not going to happen with Florida. That's not going to happen with their defense."

It would seem Gilyard may not have watched the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, a 32-13 Alabama rout in which Florida's defense had its worst showing of the season.

The Crimson Tide rolled up 490 total yards - more than double the amount the Gators allowed entering the game. UA's 32 points were more than three times what UF had been allowing up to that point (9.8 points per game).

Florida defenders have taken two different positions regarding the game. Some choose to forget about it and chalk it up to a one-time collapse, while others have forced themselves to painfully go back and watch it again.

Junior cornerback Joe Haden is in the former camp. He has not watched tape of the game and has no plans to do so. He prefers to consider it an aberration.

Safety Major Wright looks at it the other way. He asked for a DVD of the game and has studied it to try and make adjustments.

"We weren't playing physical enough," Wright said. "We weren't playing Florida defense. We usually go out and have fun, chest bump after every play. It wasn't happening."

Linebacker Ryan Stamper, who outgoing defensive coordinator Charlie Strong called the unit's MVP on Tuesday, thinks the team's aura of invincibility finally caught up to it after a school-record 22-game winning streak.

"We were on the high throne and felt like we couldn't be beat. Things just went our way every time we stepped on the football field," Stamper said. "Everything went our way. We always came out winning the football game.

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"We couldn't get in the flow of the (Alabama) game because everyone got in their head like, 'Alright even though they scored, we're going to be alright. We're going to come back and win.'

"'Dang we're down 14, but we're about to win the game. We're going to win this game.' Even when we were down 19, I'm like, 'We're about to win. We're about to come back and win.'

"As crazy as that may sound, that's what comes in your head when it's been happening all season. Going undefeated, not having lost since the Ole Miss game -- we didn't know the feeling to lose."

With the SEC Championship Game fiasco behind them, the Gators' defense will have a chance to regain some pride against the Bearcats before it loses much of its core to graduation or NFL defections.

Cincinnati will pose quite a challenge, boasting an offense that ranks sixth in the country in yards (464.3) and points (39.8) per game. Those numbers, however, have come against a schedule that includes only six teams ranked in the top 50 in total defense, including just two in the top 30 - Rutgers (17th) and Pittsburgh (26th)

Senior quarterback Tony Pike, ranked ninth in the country in passing efficiency, said the SEC Championship Game showed establishing a run game is key against Florida's defense. The Crimson Tide ran the ball 53 times for 251 yards compared to 19 passing attempts for 239 yards.

"We're going up against the best secondary we've seen," said Pike, who led the Big East with 261.1 passing yards per game. "You can't just let them know the pass is coming. You've got to keep them at least a little guessing. With the athletes they have on Florida, you've gotta be able to do both."

Pike will likely be looking in Gilyard's direction plenty on Friday. The senior wideout leads the team with 1,150 receiving yards on 80 catches, 24 more than anyone else.

In Cincinnati's 45-44 win over Pittsburgh that clinched the Big East title, Gilyard finished with five receptions for 118 yards and a score as well as adding a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Haden said Gilyard is one of the top five receivers Florida has faced all season.

"Mardy Gilyard is one of the more dynamic players in all of college football," passing game coordinator Charley Molnar said. "When Mardy goes, our offense goes, and when our offense goes, we always have a chance to win the football game."

Florida's defensive performance against Alabama may have cost the Gators a chance to play for the national title, but Friday will give the unit an opportunity to give Gilyard and the Bearcats a taste of defense in the SEC.

"We can go out there and show that we're still one of the best defenses," Stamper said.



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