Outback Bowl 2011: Five Key Matchups for Florida vs. Penn State

Ryan FallerAnalyst IDecember 6, 2010

After a disappointing regular season, can Urban Meyer and the Gators get things straightened out against Penn State?
After a disappointing regular season, can Urban Meyer and the Gators get things straightened out against Penn State?Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The 2011 Outback Bowl, a game in which two of college football’s premier programs will attempt to end their uncharacteristically poor seasons on a good note.

If someone can kindly write me a comment letting me know how many times both Florida and Penn State have finished the season with at least five losses, I’d greatly appreciate it. I ask because as far as I can tell, it has only happened three times since 1980.

Alright, on to the key matchups:


Florida QB John Brantley Vs. His Own Center

This is partially in jest, but the man in question—Mike Pouncey—has had well-documented issues executing the simplest and most basic play in football: the center-quarterback exchange.

A mainstay at guard over the past few seasons, the senior Pouncey had an inauspicious beginning to his succession of brother Maurkice at center. In Florida’s closer-than-expected season-opening win against Miami (Ohio), Pouncey air-mailed one snap over Brantley’s head and dribbled a pair of others along the ground. Little did we know that such ineptitude would wind up being a theme this season for the Florida offense, which scored six fewer points per game than it did last season and a whopping 14 fewer points than during Tim Tebow’s junior season of 2008.

And while I don’t expect any such bloopers to bite the Gators against Penn State, Pouncey’s trouble with such an elementary part of the game is strictly a mental thing, which has a way of popping up at inopportune times.


Urban Vs. Joe

It’s old-school versus new-school. A pair of black long-rim glasses, an oxford shirt and hiked-up khaki slacks against a modernized Nike windbreaker and a persona that exudes the future of college football.

When Joe Paterno took the job at Penn State, Urban Meyer was not yet two years old. When Paterno was entering his 20th season in Happy Valley, Meyer was a faceless tight ends coach at Ohio State. And when Meyer was winning his first National Title in 2006, an 80-year-old Paterno was contemplating not retirement, but how long he would continue to extend his all-time wins total.

In this day and age of copycatting practices, unless you run the triple-option offense, no one team is drastically different schematically from any other. You have your teams that run portions of the spread and the Pistol. Some incorporate both into a more power-running style. Others don’t bother putting a label on their offense because nothing justifies the hodge-podge of schemes that go into it. In other words, what we’ll see on the field between Florida and Penn State won’t be all that dissimilar.

What will be, however, are the two figures patrolling the sidelines, neither of which is accustomed to losing. Who will succeed at leading his team to that all-important Bowl win that can create momentum for 2011 and make a disappointing season a little bit less so?


Penn State PK Anthony Fera Vs. Florida Return Men Janoris Jenkins and Andre Debose

As is the case with Michigan State versus Alabama, the Nittany Lions will have to win the battle of field position and special teams to beat an opponent that, on paper, looks to be more talented. And while Penn State does have a fairly reliable kicker in Collin Wagner, who made 79 percent of his field goals (19 of 24) this season, the punting game has lagged.

Fera finished the regular season ranked fifth in the Big Ten with an average of 41.6 yards per punt. Not a bad figure, but he is listed as a kicker by trade, which explains why he recorded 19 touchbacks in 49 chances. Will Fera be able to execute consistently enough to limit the touches by the Gators' return men?

Punt returner Janoris Jenkins, also a starter at corner, has been a modest performer in the place of Brandon James, averaging only 8.3 yards per return. Where the Nittany Lions could get hurt—but only if they manage to score—is on kickoff returns, where Debose has racked up two scores on a scintillating average of 29.7 yards.

On the flip side, Gator punter Chas Henry should have little problem doing his part in establishing troublesome field position for Penn State. Henry, who also made four of eight field goals, led the SEC in punting with an average of 46.4 yards.


Penn State RB Evan Royster Vs. Florida S Ahmad Black

If you skim down the list of the SEC leaders in tackles-for-loss, you won’t find a single Gator among the top 10, and only one—defensive end Justin Trattou—in the top 20. In fact, if you skim the list of the SEC’s leading tacklers overall, the only Gators to make an appearance are Black and Jelani Jenkins, a freshman linebacker.

This would seem to be a statistical anomaly, because Florida ranks no worse than fifth in the conference in run and pass defense. That said, it’s still somewhat abnormal to have a safety lead the team in tackles—even one as talented as Black.

Royster, a fifth-year senior and multi-season starter, is unequivocally the go-to back in Paterno’s running game. He failed to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the first time since 2007, but he was a workhorse, logging more than 45 percent of the carries this season.

Toss in the fact that underclassmen quarterbacks Robert Bolden and Matt McGloin have been asked to throw an average of 30 balls a game, and it’s clear the majority of the offense runs through Royster, who has also caught 21 passes for 151 yards.

At the moment, there is no longer a laundry list of household names on the Florida defense, but Black is one that should stand out. The 5’9”, 190-pounder is solid in run support and he tackles well in space, which enables him to cheat up toward the line more often than most. If Penn State starts to have some success with Royster, expect first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to put Black in the box and utilize his skills in run support.

With the Gators keying on Royster, Paterno and offensive coordinator Galen Hall could turn to the play-action pass, even with one of their two unproven quarterbacks under center. This would be a welcome sight for Florida, which, despite being somewhat short on experience, has bountiful speed and athleticism in the secondary.


Florida’s Running Game vs. Penn State’s Rush Defense

Neither is spectacular, which is exactly why even the slightest improvement for either team could go a long way.

The Gators did manage 166 yards per game on the ground this season, but that’s down nearly 70 yards from two seasons ago. So what has happened? Well, that Tebow guy is gone. Brantley scares no one with his feet. And Jeffrey Demps, despite averaging nearly six yards a carry, has only gotten 89 touches—the fewest amount of any SEC back to run for more than 500 yards.

Mashed up into all of this has been a post-Tebow transition era, in which a first-year starter is throwing to a collection of unspectacular receivers. But as ineffective as the Florida ground game has been, it will have a chance to flourish against a Penn State run defense that has been largely pedestrian.

Indicative of its performance as a whole, the Penn State defense did not have one player named to the All-Big Ten first-team. Senior defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu made the second team, and he is the exception on a unit that was effective against the pass (second in the Big Ten) but allowed nearly 165 yards per game on the ground.

If center Mike Pouncey and guards Carl Johnson and James Wilson can stand their ground against Ogbu and the interior of Penn State’s defensive line, Demps, Emmanuel Moody, Chris Rainey, or whoever gets the ball should be able to find some seams into the next level of the defense.