Wizards

Stingy Florida defense likes Sugar Bowl challenge

201212290959359672509-p2.jpeg

Stingy Florida defense likes Sugar Bowl challenge

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.''

Quick Links

Isaiah Thomas: NBA should have canceled games after Kobe Bryant's death

Isaiah Thomas: NBA should have canceled games after Kobe Bryant's death

The news of Kobe Bryant's death shook the sports world to its core, and while there were NBA games scheduled throughout Sunday, some felt the league should have canceled the games in light of the tragic news. 

Isaiah Thomas was one of them. 

"It's hard to even talk about it," Thomas said. "The NBA should have just canceled all the games because that put a dent in everybody's life that he's touched."

Thomas looked up to Bryant, admired him from afar and found his love for the game of basketball because of Bryant's greatness. Spending 20 years as a Laker, Bryant won five championships, an MVP and two Finals MVP awards to go along with 15 All-NBA selections and 18 trips to the All-Star game. 

For Thomas, his relationship with Bryant started to grow when he broke out as an All-Star in Boston. When Thomas suffered the tragic loss of his sister, they grew closer. After his hip injury that cost Thomas over a year of his career, Bryant supported him throughout. 

"I started basketball because of Kobe Bryant," he said. "2017, I lose my sister, 2019 I lose one of my best friends in Nipsey Hussle, and then to lose a mentor of mine, like, that's bigger than basketball, that [expletive] hurts.

"He was one of the people that was there for me and in my corner," he said. "And then I got injured, he was one of those guys that was there for me the whole time, helping me through mentally."

The NBA had a difficult decision to make on whether or not to cancel games since there were two games already in progress.

But before, during and after the game, everyone's thoughts were with Bryant and his family and not on a basketball game. Because as Thomas said, it's bigger than basketball. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

MORE WIZARDS NEWS:

Quick Links

Wizards lose emotional game to Hawks in wake of Kobe Bryant's death

Wizards lose emotional game to Hawks in wake of Kobe Bryant's death

The Washington Wizards lost to the Atlanta Hawks 152-133 on Sunday night. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

1. For some reason that may or may not be explained at a later date, the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks played a basketball game on Sunday just hours after the shocking death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant.

Maybe the NBA found it fitting to honor his legacy by allowing basketball, his lifelong love, to proceed as normal. Maybe there were just too many moving pieces for commissioner Adam Silver and the league to coordinate in postponing or cancelling the eight total games that were scheduled on Sunday.

But it just felt really strange to watch two teams play a game that not only seemed inconsequential in light of the day's events, but will likely have no bearing on the playoff picture once the season is over. And it was clear to all those watching Sunday's games how difficult it was for players to operate as if everything was normal.

It was already a tragic day and games like the one the Wizards played added an awkward element that seemed unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. The result of the game, a Wizards' loss, seems meaningless.

2. Though a lot of the players probably would have preferred to not play, they ultimately did and both teams paid tribute to Bryant before and during the game.

There was a moment of silence at the arena as players and coaches held back tears. Then, once the game started, the Hawks held the ball for an eight-second violation and then the Wizards did the same for a 24-second shot clock violation.

It is amazing, really, how amazing it is that rulebook coincidence exists. Two clock violations in the NBA happen to be the jersey numbers he wore as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

3. Trae Young went further than that by wearing a No. 8 jersey to begin the game. He then switched to his usual, No. 11 uniform once the game began.

Young then proceeded to light up the Wizards for 45 points and 14 assists. He had 21 and 10 by halftime.

Young had previously had a very tough time against the Wizards. Through five career games against Washington, he was averaging just 13.4 points while shooting 30.8 percent from the field, both his lowest numbers against any team.

This time, though, Young finally broke through. At least for now, that monkey is off his back.

4. One Wizards player who was tasked with guarding Young was Isaac Bonga, but it didn't last long as Bonga left the game in the second quarter with a fractured tooth. He did not return.

Bonga was hurt on a collision with Young at midcourt when both were going for a loose ball. Bonga dove for the ball and was on his chest on the floor when Young collided with the back of his head, which caused Bonga's face to slam downward.

Unless there are concussion symptoms, this doesn't seem like the type of injury that will keep Bonga out long. It was, however, likely pretty painful.

In addition to Bonga, Jordan McRae also exited with an injury. He re-aggravated his right ankle in the second half and did not return.

5. It would have been really interesting to see Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura play in this game. He is still roughly a week or two away from returning from a groin injury and could only watch as two players who were drafted in the same class and play the same position had impressive games against the Wizards.

De'Andre Hunter, the fourth overall pick out of the University of Virginia, had 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting. And Cam Reddish, who was picked 10th overall and right behind Hachimura out of Duke University, added 13 points.

Hachimura, 21, has so far been better than both of them, but both Hunter and Reddish seem to have turned a corner lately. In this particular game, they were solid and helped Atlanta pull away for the victory.

It may take years before we know which teams got which draft picks right. But as of now it looks like all three have potential to be very good NBA players.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

MORE WIZARDS NEWS: