It was the Hogs’ safeties and Gators quarterback Chris Leak seemed to pinpoint every mismatch during Florida’s 45-30 win against Arkansas here Saturday.
“They gave us a lot of different looks,” Leak said. “You have to make a lot of reads on the run because they do so many different looks, but we finally figured it out and got in a rhythm.”
Leak, a sophomore two-year starter, had his way early with the Hogs’ secondary by completing 23 of 38 passes for three touchdowns and a career-high 322 yards. He was 14 of 20 for 237 yards in the first half.
“When Leak is on, he’s pretty good obviously,” said Florida coach Ron Zook. “He knows he has a lot of weapons.”
Leak first pulled the trigger on a touch pass over Arkansas linebacker John Jackson’s head to Chad Jackson for a 39-yard gain. He then hit O.J. Small for an 11-yard pass, with free safety Vickiel Vaughn defending, that set up a touchdown run by Ciatrick Fason and gave the Gators a 7-0 lead.
“Coach was telling us all week that they had a young secondary,” Chad Jackson said. “We just finally made the right adjustments.”
On Florida’s next possession, Leak found Small again, this time uncovered against Lerinezo Robinson, for a 19-yard pass play. Then, Andre Caldwell split a pair of Hogs defenders after taking a handoff on a reverse and sprinted 61 yards for a 14-0 Florida lead.
Arkansas flipped the script on the Gators, using a variety of pass plays to move the chains against Florida’s young secondary, and went 89 yards for its only scoring drive of the first half to cut it to 14-7 with six minutes remaining in the first half.
That was plenty of time for Leach to continue dismantling the Hogs defense as the Gators scored three times before the break to take a convincing 35-7 lead into the locker room.
“Most of the times, we saw no safety in the middle of the field,” Chad Jackson said.
With Vaughn covering, Leak hit Caldwell for a 33-yard pass and then hooked up with Dallas Baker, who sprung wide open against safety Randy Kelley’s coverage, for a 34 yard touchdown to increase the lead to 21-7.
After Jarvis Herring perfectly read a quick out pass from Matt Jones to Marcus Monk for an interception which gave the Gators possession at the Arkansas 24.
On third-and-10, Leak found Baker in man coverage against Hogs cornerback Darius Vinnett for a 13-yard gain on. Two plays later, another Fason touchdown run made it 28-7.
Florida converted another third down when Robinson was unable to catch up to Caldwell on quick out for a 10-yard gain. On the next play, cornerback Michael Coe was beat deep on a 48-yard touchdown pass to Jemalle Cornelius.
The Gators made it look easy. Their 28 points in the second is the most scored in a single quarter by a Zook-coached team.
“We just kept looking for the matchups in our favor and we took advantage of it,” Caldwell said. “We noticed the played a lot of man outside (coverage) so we ran a lot of post routes and we hit them for touchdowns.
“It’s never as easy as it looks, but it was a lot of fun out there.”
Florida’s defense also was effective early, lining up in a 44 set (four defensive linemen, four linebackers) in run situations and going to a 4-3 or 5-2 in passing situations.
But when Arkansas went to the air trailing 38-7, the Gators’ defense began to buckle and gave up 23 unanswered points before a late Hogs’ turnover sealed the victory.
“You have to give Arkansas credit, they did a great job,” Zook said. “They’re quarterback (Matt Jones) is a big-time player. They were leading the Southeastern Conference in offense, so for the most part, the defensive played well.
“When we had to have it, we did.”
With Arkansas threatening late after trimming it to 38-30, linebacker Channing Crowder picked off a pass thrown behind Arkansas receiver Carlos Ousley. It set up a two-yard touchdown pass from Leak to Baker with safety Dallas Washington trailing the play in the back of the end zone.
“That’s a pass we work on a lot,” Leak said. “I just went through my reads and we found the soft spot in the coverage.”