University of Florida

Florida Gators’ tough win reveals problems in defensive backfield

Head coach Will Muschamp of the Florida Gators yells during the second half of the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida.
Head coach Will Muschamp of the Florida Gators yells during the second half of the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. Getty Images

Traditionally, Will Muschamp-coached secondaries are as stout as they come, but Florida’s defensive wizard appears to have his work cut out for him this season.

The Gators’ inexperienced defensive backfield was shaky throughout UF’s thrilling 36-30 triple-overtime victory over Kentucky, burned by big plays, poor communication and busted coverages.

Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles shredded Florida’s secondary for 250 yards and three touchdowns after halftime — including two scores in the third quarter where the Gators didn’t have a defender within 20 yards of the receiver.

“They had six big plays for 173 yards,” Muschamp said.

“We need to play the ball better. We didn’t and that was very frustrating. … We’ve got to cover better, and that’s my responsibility.”

Towles challenged Florida’s cornerbacks — including All-American Vernon Hargreaves III — with back-shoulder throws and deep crossing patterns, finding a trio of underclassmen receivers for 12 receptions for 232 yards and three scores.

Muschamp places an immense amount of pressure on his defensive backs with lots of press-coverage and minimal zone defense.

It didn’t work against the Wildcats.

Florida’s safeties struggled to locate the football, and five-star freshman cornerback Jalen Tabor was picked on multiple times.

“We need to communicate better on the back end, and that starts at the safety position,” Muschamp said.

“Brian [Poole] had a huge play on the third down in the third overtime to knock the ball off the guy. That’s a 50-50 ball. I know from the stands that looks easy. That’s a really hard thing. It’s a hard task to do some of the things we ask those guys to do. I thought he really stepped up and played well at times and certainly he would like to have a couple plays back.”

The Gators intercepted three passes — two via deflections by sophomore safety Keanu Neal — but Florida dropped at least four other picks. Poole’s pass breakup in triple overtime was a spectacular, game-saving play, but too often Florida’s defensive backs weren’t in the right position to make a similar play.

“There’s going to be games like that when you play in our conference, and you’ve got to find ways to win those games and our guys found a way to win the game,” Muschamp said.

“We showed some resiliency and fight thorough adversity, but there’s certainly a lot of things to be corrected. … The way we play, sometimes that’s where the ball is going to fall, and you’ve got to go make those plays.”

Improvement better come quickly.

The secondary has a week to shore up its inconsistencies, as Florida travels to Alabama this Saturday (3:30 p.m., EST) to face-off against All-American wideout Amari Cooper.

The junior receiver leads the Southeastern Conference in yards (454) and receptions (33) and is a near-certain first-round pick in the next NFL Draft.

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