Stingy Florida defense likes Sugar Bowl challenge
By GUERRY SMITH
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Rather than boast about Florida's lofty national defensive rankings, safety Josh Evans questions whether they are an accurate reflection of how good his unit really is.
Florida ranks fifth nationally in total defense and third in scoring defense.
Yet in Evans' eyes, the No. 4 Gators (11-1) are second to none defensively, something they will try to prove when they play 22nd-ranked Louisville (10-2) and dynamic quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night.
"Absolutely I feel we're the best," Evans said. "With our front seven and our back end, I see it. If you just look at the games we've played and the schedule we have, to not give up a touchdown against LSU and to not give up any points in the second half against (Heisman Trophy winning Texas A&M quarterback) Johnny Manziel ... that was huge for us."
Florida's defense fared better than Alabama, the NCAA leader in yards allowed, against the three best opponents both teams faced.
The Gators limited Manziel and the Texas A&M offense to 324 yards for the game and zero points in the second half in a 20-17 September victory at College Station, Texas. Two months later, Manziel and the Aggies rolled up 418 yards in a 29-24 upset of the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The Gators beat LSU 14-6 in Gainesville on Oct. 6, holding the Tigers to two field goals and 200 yards. A month later, LSU gained 435 yards on the Crimson Tide, which needed a last-minute touchdown to escape Tiger Stadium with a win.
In the Gators' lone loss, 17-9 to Georgia, they forced four turnovers and yielded only 273 yards. Alabama gave up 394 yards and 28 points to Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
The Gators also do have one ranking with which Evans won't quibble: First nationally in pass defense efficiency.
Florida has made a believer out of Louisville offensive coordinator Sean Watson.
"They've got excellent players in every level of the defense," he said. "They can really rush four guys because they're so good up front. They have lockdown people in the back end. Their safeties are good coverage players. Their linebackers can cover. They have every piece defensively you could ever want."
The Gators don't overwhelm anyone with individual statistics. Evans leads them in tackles with a modest 79. Their top sacker, Dominique Easley, has four.
"It's not about stats," defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. "At the end of the day, it's, `What does our team need,' not a, `What do I need,' type of thing. It's a team effort."
The Gators have not given up more than 363 yards in any game and have allowed only 29 fourth-quarter points.
If the defense has a signature player, it's junior safety Matt Elam, a first-team Associated Press All-America selection who had a team-high four interceptions. With the Gators protecting a 7-6 lead against LSU in the third quarter, Elam tracked down receiver Odell Beckham Jr. after a 56-yard gain and stripped the ball on the sideline. Florida recovered it and converted the turnover into a touchdown.
"That play defined our season because it showed we won't quit, and every game we showed it," said cornerback Jaylen Watkins, who has three interceptions. "He could have gave up on the play or could have just made the tackle, but he went the extra mile to make the strip. It turned the whole game around."
Florida's final test will come against Louisville's Bridgewater, who ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency and averages 287.7 yards passing. Bridgewater, who led the Cardinals to victories in their first nine games, knows his job won't be easy.
"They have a tough front seven," Bridgewater said. "They push offensive linemen back. They're just physical."
Having already shut down Manziel and intercepted Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray three times, the Gators welcome the challenge that Bridgewater presents.
"You always want to play against the best," senior linebacker Jon Bostic said. "That's what you come to Florida for. This is another chance to go out and prove to everybody we have the top defense."
Updated December 31, 2012