UF's defense is money
Published: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 at 4:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 at 6:00 p.m.
If, like coaches say, third down is the money down, then opposing offenses are living below the poverty line this season thanks to Florida's suffocating defense.
The Gators are stingy when it comes to third down.
Of all the impressive defensive stats the Gators have been piling up this season, the one that jumps off the page is their success on third down. Opponents are converting third downs a mere 17.8 percent of the time (eight-of-45 attempts), which leads the nation.
“Even last year, that was our big thing, get off the field on third down,” senior cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins said. “Get off the field on third down, punt and get the offense back on the field. Three-and-outs. You wear out their defense because their defense is consistently on the field. Third-down defense plays a lot into our scheme and our success."
Defensive end/outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said getting third-down stops, especially three-and-outs, are “gold time.”
“We emphasize that a lot, because that's basically the down you get off the field,” Fowler said. “Three-and-outs, third downs — that's gold time. The defensive line pins their ears back and the secondary gets ready so we can get off the field and get our offense back on the field. That's like putting up points for us."
Florida's defense has been strong in all areas this season. The Gators lead the SEC in an astounding eight statistical categories, including scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and pass defense. But it's UF's success on third down that sticks out, and may have the biggest impact on the Gators' overall efficiency.
“That's something we emphasize and talk about a lot,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “(We work on it) every day. That's a great opportunity. An opportunity for greatness to get off the field. Who's going to make the play? Those guys understand that what you emphasize is what's important, and they understand the importance of third down. We spend a lot of time on third down.”
Muschamp said the Gators' success on third down can be traced to a number of factors.
“No. 1, you need to be able to rush the passer with four guys,” Muschamp said. “That's critical. You've got to be able to cover man-to-man and deny the ball down the field.
“Third-and-six or less, you've got to be able to play some man-to-man. You've got to have some good zone principles and concepts when it is longer, and being able to rush four. You need to have a good pressure package.
“I think our defensive staff does a really good job of mixing those as far as our rush, our pressure package, our man concepts and our zone concepts, so you keep the offense off balance.”
UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said another critical factor in UF's third-down success has been the Florida offense — the way the Gators have controlled the ball and the clock with a strong, consistent running game.
In UF's 24-7 win at Kentucky, the Gators followed each three-and-out on defense with plenty of rest on the sideline, while the offense mounted time-consuming drives.
“(Third down) is critical because that's getting off the field,” Durkin said. “The big thing we talk about is winning on third down and getting off the field. Our offense has done a great job of keeping the ball a lot and controlling it and that keeps us off the field.
“Any time on defense you're on the sideline making the adjustments, getting fresh and correcting things as opposed to being out there, that helps you. We're fresher for the long run and that helps us win the second half and the fourth quarter.”
Several defensive players this week said they almost got bored at times during the UK game sitting idle on the sideline for such long periods of time.
“That was like the fastest half of my life, even faster than when I was in high school,” Fowler said of the first half. “Our offense was on the field for a long time. I think we had only two series in the first quarter.
“You kind of want to be out there playing more, but that's our job, to get three-and-outs.”
So, UF's third-down success is the result of a combination of things: solid pass rush from the front four, good coverage in the secondary and ball-control by the Gator offense.
When Watkins was asked which defensive stat the Gators are most proud of, he didn't hesitate.
“Third-down defense,” he said. “That's something we emphasize. We take a lot of pride in it.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.