Last winter, the Florida defensive coaches welcomed a group of assistants from another school to Gainesville to watch film, compare notes and discuss the finer points of stopping an opposing offense.
The visiting coaches arrived in Florida on a flight from Columbus, Ohio, and they frequently wear scarlet and gray. On Monday, the Ohio State and Florida coaches will reconvene at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, with a national championship at stake.
“Yeah, that’s strange,” Gators coach Urban Meyer said on Wednesday. “A little ironic, definitely. We were joking around with them, saying 'We’ll see you in the big game next January.’ Here we are.”
Meyer is not worried that Gator state secrets escaped during the powwow with the Buckeyes’ coaches, saying that everything his team does defensively is all on film. That riddle has been mighty tough for opposing teams to solve.
A school that has been long known for offense, Florida arrived at the BCS title contest on the strength of its unheralded-but-not-unappreciated defense, which ranks 10th in Division I-A by allowing 268.8 yards a game.
The Gators limited eight opponents to 14 points or less this season. The defense had no off weeks, not even in Florida’s only loss, a 27-17 setback at Auburn in which the unit did not allow a touchdown.
“Our defense doesn’t get much press or much pub, but we grind every day,” linebacker Brandon Siler said. “That’s why we like not being in the spotlight. We kind of laugh and smile about that when we get back in the locker room, but we play with an edge.”
Much focus is being placed on the speed and athleticism of Ohio State’s offense, which is conducted by quarterback Troy Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner. However, Florida feels its defense has physical attributes that can effectively counter the Buckeye Express.
The Gators’ front seven are quick off the edge and tough to move inside — and they are not the strength of the unit. That honor goes to the secondary, which combined for 20 interceptions and boasts All-American safety Reggie Nelson.
“We have speed, and we play hard and with great technique,” defensive tackle Ray McDonald said. “We have good speed, but that really doesn’t define our defense. We play with great focus and technique. Everybody on our defense can run and hit.”
Co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said that the caliber of offenses Florida faces in the SEC demand quickness, especially up front.
Defensive ends Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey can wreak havoc on an opponent’s backfield — combining for 13 sacks — and are capable of dropping back in pass coverage.
“In the SEC, I think a lot of people are surprised at the speed of the defensive lines,” Strong said. “You look at the skill guys and assume they are fast. But when you have an athletic guy playing a defensive end position, you can drop him back in pass coverage, and he does not look out of place.”
Siler and Earl Everett head a linebacking corps that is constantly around the ball, completing a front seven whose speed and strength enable the Gators to get pressure without blitzing much. That fosters tight coverage and a high interception total.
“We have executed well,” cornerback Ryan Smith said. “I think our coaches have done a great job of putting us in the right places. And we have gone out and made plays that we had to make.
“We have done that every week, and we have to do it for one more game.”