Not long after Alabama gouged Florida on the ground in last year’s Southeastern Conference championship game, the Gators starting working on ways to better stop the run.
They came up with the “Heavy Package,” a 5-2 defensive scheme that puts an extra defensive lineman on the field and stacks the line of scrimmage.
It worked to perfection two weeks ago at Tennessee, as Florida held Tauren Poole to 23 yards on 10 carries. The real test comes Saturday night when the seventh-ranked Gators travel to top-ranked Alabama and face Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and more-than-capable backup Trent Richardson.
“This will be a completely different challenge,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “This is going to be a grind-it-out outfit that we have to tackle. (Ingram) breaks tackles at an alarming pace. Both those backs do.”
The Gators saw that firsthand in Atlanta last December.
Ingram ran 28 times for 113 yards and three touchdowns, helping the Tide secure a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game and essentially wrapping up the Heisman race. Richardson added 80 yards on 11 carries.
Heck, even third-stinger Roy Upchurch embarrassed Florida. He got in the game late, broke off a 29-yard run and finished with 57 yards on just eight touches.
When it was over, Alabama ran 53 times for 251 yards and averaged nearly 5 yards a carry in the 32-13 victory. Maybe even more telling: The Crimson Tide’s three running backs lost just 2 yards on their 46 carries.
“It was ugly,” cornerback Jeremy Brown said.
Ingram and Richardson beat defenders to holes, broke tackles and made guys miss in the open field.
“It was a nasty taste last year with the loss,” defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. “And this offseason was dedicated to beating Alabama.”
It started in spring practice, when new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and defensive line coach Dan McCarney unveiled the “Heavy Package.” A more fitting name might have been the ’Bama Bundle. After all, it was tailor made to stem the Tide.
The scheme essentially moves 250-pound defensive end Duke Lemmens to strong-side linebacker and 295-pound defensive tackle to end. Lemmens then lines up as a fifth lineman, staying away from bigger tight ends and offensive linemen but remaining in position to help stop runs between the tackles.
The downside is it takes one of Florida’s speedy linebackers off the field, leaving the Gators vulnerable to perimeter rushes and passes.
Meyer has another concern with the package.
“How do you stop a great running back? You load the box, plus-one them and you don’t miss a tackle,” Meyer said. “Unfortunately, when you do that, you’re now leaving your corner on an island with probably the first receiver going to be picked in the NFL draft. That’s the issue.”
Julio Jones could be a problem, especially since the 6-foot-4 receiver will be matched up against Florida’s much smaller cornerbacks. But the Gators have spent the last 10 months mostly thinking about what Ingram and Richardson did to them.
Ingram has looked sharp since returning from arthroscopic knee surgery, averaging 9.3 yards a carry against Duke and Arkansas. He missed the first two games, but ran for 151 yards and two touchdowns against the Blue Devils and then had 157 yards and two more scores against the Razorbacks.
“My main focusing coming back into the first game was not to have any hesitation in my step whatsoever,” Ingram said. “I wanted to have 100-percent confidence in my ability of what I could do out there on the field, and that’s the way I practice. I just push it to the limit, so I wouldn’t have any hesitation. I haven’t had any so far. I’m really happy with how things have gone since the surgery.”
Richardson leads the Tide with 356 yards and four touchdowns. He also has 10 receptions for 126 yards and a score.
Making Florida’s preparations even more difficult is the wildcat formation, which Alabama has used so effectively the last two seasons.
“We’re fortunate to have a couple of really good runners,” coach Nick Saban said. “I think you’re adding a gap to the defense when you do this because somebody has to cover the quarterback. Even though he’s not going to get the ball, somebody has to cover him. Therefore you create a little bit of a running advantage for yourself, even though they know what’s coming.
“That’s been a very effective tool for us in the last two years. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue to execute it and get the kind of production that is helpful to our offense.”
The Gators believe they’re better prepared for the wildcat and anything else Alabama brings to the game Saturday night.