A pair of potent South Florida quarterbacks will duel on New Year’s Day, and Florida coach Jim McElwain is making sure his is ready for the fight.
Miami native Treon Harris has regressed in his sophomore season, but if No. 19 Florida is going to upset No. 14 Michigan in the Citrus Bowl (1 p.m., ABC), McElwain needs his quarterback to “cut the ball loose.”
“When the guy’s there, throw it to him,” the UF coach said.
“It really kind of works a little bit like that.”
The Gators (10-3) have exceeded expectations in McElwain’s inaugural season in Gainesville, but their offense has mostly fallen flat with Harris at the helm. The former star at Miami Booker T. Washington has been an uncomfortable fit in McElwain’s system, struggling with accuracy, decisiveness and vision.
Conversely, Jim Harbaugh has leaned on a veteran quarterback from Weston during his first season in Ann Arbor.
Like the Gators, the Wolverines (9-3) weren’t supposed to be here, but fifth-year senior Jake Rudock emerged as a reliable leader, completing more than 66 percent of his passes during the final eight weeks of the season. The former Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas standout has piloted an efficient short-passing attack, throwing 11 touchdown passes and just two interceptions since October.
“It’s a big challenge,” Florida’s sophomore star cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “He knows where he wants to go with the ball. He knows what opposing defenses are trying to do to him, and he gets the ball out of his hands quick. Pretty good quarterback, runs their system well.”
Florida and Michigan tout salty, Top 10 defenses, so which quarterback can avoid mistakes could go a long way in deciding the Citrus Bowl.
Rudock, an Iowa transfer, isn’t immune to turnovers, throwing six picks during the first month of the season. Tabor and the rest of Florida’s swarming secondary are ready to capitalize on similar opportunities.
“I just know that since he knows what he wants to do he’s going to throw the ball exactly where it’s supposed to be,” Tabor said.
“If I’m there, I’m there. He’s going to give us a couple of shots, and when the plays come to us we have to make them.”
Harris has left way too many plays on the field, especially in blowout losses to Florida State and Alabama.
He completed just nine passes in the Southeastern Conference championship game and threw as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns in the final four games of the season.
Still, McElwain, who has criticized the quarterback plenty this year, did spread the blame on UF’s offensive woes. Pass protection has been inconsistent, and only Antonio Callaway, another Miami native, has emerged as a reliable playmaker.
“There’s plays [Harris] would like to have back, and yet this is another opportunity to go see how you do,” McElwain said.
“But it isn’t all him. That’s one thing I want everybody to kind of understand. I think as you look, as their [Michigan’s] quarterback developed, their team around him has gotten a lot better and that’s something you always consistently have got to look to do.”
While Rudock will start the final game of his collegiate career, the Citrus Bowl could be Harris’ last game at quarterback for Florida.
The sophomore faces an uncertain future, but he has embraced the challenge of playing behind three freshman offensive linemen and going up against the nation’s No. 1 pass-efficiency defense.
“He has put in plenty of work,” senior center Trip Thurman said. “He’s learned from his mistakes the past two games, and he’s going to be ready for Michigan.”