For long stretches of time this season, Florida’s defense has seemingly been impenetrable, overwhelming opposing offenses with big plays, turnovers and a long succession of three-and-outs.
But time and again, just when it looks like the defense has taken over the game — boom, the opposing offense torches the defense with an explosive play (or two or three).
In the loss to Kentucky, there was the 54-yard TD pass given up on third-and-16, and a 29-yard TD pass on second-and-16 and the 24-yard TD run by the quarterback.
Early in the fourth quarter against LSU, it was a 31-yard run up the middle, followed by a 47-yard run that suddenly set up the go-ahead touchdown.
In the win at Vanderbilt two weeks ago, there was the simple screen pass that turned into a 75-yard touchdown play.
The Gators have given up their share, and they’re looking to eliminate them heading into Saturday’s SEC showdown with Georgia.
“It’s huge (that we eliminate them),” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “Explosive plays usually lead to points. So, it’s a big thing.”
It’s a huge thing this week, because explosive plays are what led to the 42-7 rout at the hands of the Bulldogs a year ago.
The Gators gave up touchdown runs of 74, 45 and 39 yards.
That’s far too much explosiveness to overcome.
Middle linebacker David Reese said the Gators have to be mentally sharp this week to avoid getting burned by big plays again.
“Huge,” he said. “That’s mental. It’s all mental. As long as we know what we’ve got to do, meet extra with our coaches, we’ll be OK. It’s the type of week where you’ve really got to zone in and hit your books, really know what you have to do so you don’t second guess when you’re out there on that field.
“Even if they get that explosive play, we’ve just got to make it hard for them to score. If we’re hard to score on, we’re going to be hard to beat. Even if we give up an explosive play, we’ve got to keep our head up and don’t let them in (the end zone).”
Explosive plays — plays of 20 yards or longer — tend to be game changers in the SEC, and certainly in a big game like this one.
So, going in, advantage Georgia. The Bulldogs lead the nation in the fewest explosive plays allowed (14). The Gators are 34th in the nation, with 27.
The team that gives up the fewest, or makes the most, explosive plays has the better chance to succeed, UF coach Dan Mullen said.
“In this league, it’s hard to put together 12-, 15-play drives and come away with points,” he said. “We look at them at both sides of the ball. You look, if we’ve hit a bunch of explosive plays, we probably were able to put some points on the board. If we did not give up explosive plays, we probably held them to a low-scoring output.
“The quality of defense as you play top teams — to sit there and just say, ‘Hey, our goal, our plan is to drive it 16 plays every time we have the ball’ — that’s great, but it’s probably unrealistic with the type of teams that play in this league.”
The explosive plays the Gators have given up this season can be traced to several factors, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. Poor tackling. Miscommunication. Failure to stay in gaps and maintain the edge.
“It’s really more about leveraging the ball, making sure that you get an edge,” Grantham said. “The edge doesn’t necessarily have to be at the end of the line. It may be down the field and you set the edge and turn it back, because we’re a compression-tackling team, which means somebody always has to force the edge of the defense and everybody else is inside-out on the ball.
“You’re going to always work to compress the ball from outside-in and inside-out and vice the ball. That’s just something that we’ve got to continue to work on so we make those kind of plays.”
Even against the strongest defenses, explosive plays are going to happen. The key is to limit the number.
Grantham said the Gators have been OK in that regard.
“We’ve had games where it’s been where it needs to be and where it’s not,” he said. “It’s always been like one (explosive play) out of 25 (plays). So, if you’re one out of 25, you’re on track. To say you’re not going to give up one is unrealistic, so we’ve usually given the goal of one out of 25.
“If we’ve met the goal, then we’ve usually done the things we’ve needed to do. When we didn’t, we had a miscommunication and we didn’t set the edge, maybe we didn’t run like we needed to. Some of those things happened, and as a young team, we’ve learned from it. We coach it up on Mondays and we work to make sure it doesn’t happen again the next Saturday.”