GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Florida's defense struggled when it was healthy this season. Now, the much-maligned unit will have to play hurt.
The 18th-ranked Gators will be without starting defensive tackle Javier Estopinan for the rest of the year and will be without backup Terron Sanders for at least a few games.
``We're dealing with some issues on defense,'' coach Urban Meyer said Monday.
Estopinan tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Saturday's 42-30 loss to Georgia. It is the third ACL injury in as many years for the junior from Miami.
Sanders could miss several weeks with a high ankle sprain, an injury the Gators said was caused by a low block by Bulldogs offensive lineman Trinton Sturdivant.
``Our defensive coaches were pretty irritated by it,'' Meyer said. ``I have a hard time believing somebody would do that (intentionally).''
Most believed Florida's defense would be adequate, even after losing nine starters. But the Gators (5-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) are 48th in the country in total defense, giving up 359 yards a game, and 87th in pass defense.
The young and inexperienced defenders have lacked a consistent pass rush, had trouble getting off the field on third down and been unable to get key stops late in games.
It's been quite a fall for a team that held Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and Ohio State to 82 yards of offense in the national championship game nearly 10 months ago.
``We gave up more than that on one play Saturday,'' Meyer said.
Mounting injuries also have made it difficult for the Gators to piece things together.
Cornerback Markihe Anderson sprained his knee a week before the season opener and hasn't returned to full speed.
Anderson was the one who dropped 20 yards into coverage on a third-and-12 play, opening up an easy throw from Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford to Sean Bailey for 22 yards. The Gators had the lead cut to 35-30 in the fourth quarter, but the completion led to the game-sealing touchdown.
``If he's not 100 percent, he shouldn't be out there,'' Meyer said. ``But the other guy (Wondy Pierre-Louis) got beat a little bit. We're trying to get them tighter, but you get tighter and a guy gets beat on a deep ball. That's that fine line out there. We've got to get the confidence level back.''
Safety Major Wright broke his thumb Oct. 20 and played only on special teams against the Bulldogs. He wore a boxing glove wrapped in gauze and tape, helpless to stop Georgia's knockout punches.
The defensive line took the biggest beating.
Not only did Estopinan and Sanders come up lame, but end Derrick Harvey (hip pointer) and tackle Clint McMillan (shoulder) also were hurt.
Those injuries further depleted a line that already was playing without Brandon Antwine, who recently spent 10 days in the hospital because of a back injury.
Now, the Gators are down to three defensive tackles: McMillan and freshmen Lawrence Marsh and Torrey Davis. The coaching staff was considering several options heading into Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.
They might play with a three-man line or may move Harvey, Duke Lemmons, Carlos Dunlap or Justin Trattou inside.
``We're evaluating all that stuff right now,'' Meyer said.
The Gators could have created chances to win against Auburn, LSU and Georgia, but the defense allowed two third-down conversions on Auburn's game-winning drive, couldn't stop LSU on five fourth-down attempts and had the ill-timed coverage error on third-and-long against the Bulldogs.
``The expectation level of playing defense at Florida, that bar is pretty high,'' Meyer said. ``I don't want to pin it all on defense because it's certainly not that. You outscore them and you win the game. But the plan to win, No. 1, is always to play great defense.
``And make a stop in any one of those three games and there's a chance you win the game.''

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