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Xs AND O's

Smith is a big challenge for Florida

January 08, 2007|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Defenses from the Southeastern Conference pride themselves on their overall speed and athletic ability, but No. 2-ranked Florida will be in line for a big hurt if it underestimates No. 1 Ohio State's firepower today in the Bowl Championship Series national title game.

That's because the Gators (12-1) simply did not face many strong offenses in the regular season. Nonconference foes Central Florida and Western Carolina were overmatched and SEC rivals Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina were average this season. Although Florida played Sugar Bowl winner Louisiana State, it played the Tigers at home and held them to only a touchdown and a field goal.

The most points the Gators gave up this season came against Arkansas in the SEC championship game when they won, 38-28, after taking a first-half lead.

This lack of tough competition will be a problem for Florida against the explosive and undefeated Buckeyes, who are led by Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith at quarterback.

Smith, who received the highest percentage (86.7%) of first-place votes in Heisman history, is a true difference maker. When Ohio State's running game has been grounded, Smith has made plays through the air. When teams have taken away the Buckeyes' passing attack, Smith has hurt defenses with his ability to keep plays alive with his legs.

During the season, Smith completed 67% of his passes and threw for 2,507 yards and a school-record 30 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He's 25-2 as Ohio State's starting quarterback, with 19 consecutive victories, and he's capable of making it a long night for the Gators, who have the No. 10-ranked defense in the nation in yards given up.

At 6 feet 1 and 215 pounds, Smith lacks the height to be your typical drop-back passer, but he has a special knack of completing passes in big games.

In Ohio State's early-season victory over Texas, Smith averaged 10.35 yards per attempt and threw two touchdown passes. In the Buckeyes' Big Ten Conference-clinching win over Michigan, he passed for 316 yards and four touchdowns.

Expect Florida to try a few different defenses in an effort to control him.

Whenever Ohio State goes with one- or two-back formations, the Gators probably will stick with their base zone defense and blitz package, which keeps two safeties back. The Gators believe that their front line, led by ends Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey, can use their quickness to disrupt the Buckeyes' offensive line, which averages 6-6 and 315 pounds.

The key player will be Florida senior tackle Joe Cohen (6-2, 296), a former running back who does a good job of using energy and toughness to make plays and, if he can force Ohio State into double teams, he will be a difference maker.

Against Michigan, Smith was effective whenever Ohio State used a spread offense with five receivers. The formation allowed Ted Ginn Jr., Brian Robiskie and Anthony Gonzalez to combine for 19 receptions, 243 yards and three touchdowns.

Look for the Buckeyes to use this tactic against Florida, which gave up 268.8 yards passing per game.

It's difficult for college programs to have a solid stock of experienced defensive backs to combat spread attacks directed by mobile quarterbacks. The Gators are no different. They've struggled at times this season when teams have forced them to consistently play nickel and dime coverages. Vanderbilt passed for 298 yards and two touchdowns, and Arkansas threw three touchdown passes.

But even if Florida is able to get good coverage and rush against Smith, the Gators still have to be concerned about his mobility. After rushing for 611 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior, Smith rushed for only 233 yards and a touchdown this season.

The Gators can't let those low numbers fool them.

Smith is different than most mobile college quarterbacks because he played running back for the Buckeyes early in his career. During his redshirt season in 2002, he got plenty of work as a tailback and kick returner on the scout team, and he played 10 games as a backup running back in 2003.

Florida will be smart to assign at least one fast player to watch the Ohio State quarterback at all times. This could lead Smith into making bad decisions with the ball, which is something he has not done often over the last two seasons.

Don't be surprised to see the Buckeyes take advantage of Smith's running skills by turning to their improved ground game. With a size advantage at the line of scrimmage, Ohio State might call on Smith to help complement tailbacks Antonio Pittman and Chris Wells.

Florida has two quality linebackers in Brandon Siler and Earl Everett, who have the speed and power to make plays against the run or pass. If they can do that against Smith, the Gators have a chance to shut down the Buckeyes' offense, which averaged 36.3 points a game.

But if the Gators view Smith like one of the quarterbacks they faced in the SEC this season, they're in trouble.

lonnie.white@latimes.com

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