Looking at the big picture, the perception is Florida’s defense is in full stagger mode heading down the stretch of the season.
Over the last three Saturdays, the Gators have given up all kinds of big plays and an average of 33 points and 428.3 total yards a game. Those numbers say they’re staggering.
But if you take a closer look, at the small picture — the second half against South Carolina — the Florida defense is actually on a two-quarter run of strong play.
For at least a half, the Gators got back to playing the same kind of defense they did earlier in the season in wins over LSU and Mississippi State.
Over the final two quarters, the Gators held the Gamecocks to four first and downs and 145 total yards and got stops on five of six third-down plays. Take away the one big play — an 89-yard catch and run by USC wide receiver Deebo Samuel — and the muffed punt and the defense would have pitched a shutout and given up only 56 total yards.
Given the almost remarkable transformation from the first half to the second, the assumption is that coordinator Todd Grantham and the defensive staff spent the halftime break making all kinds of adjustments. But that’s not the case, Grantham said.
It was just a matter of the players focusing in on executing their assignments.
“The game in itself shows the belief the players have in coaches and coaches have in the players because we really kind of just stayed the course and kept playing,” Grantham said. “Guys kept doing their job. We didn’t really make any adjustments at halftime. Here are the things we’re going to call, here are the plays you’re going to see and go play.
“We got a three-and-out, then we got a sudden change (with the muffed punt). Then we go out and stop them and hold them to a field goal. That gave us a chance to win the game. That’s why you play every play and you keep playing because you never know what can happen.”
Few in The Swamp probably saw Florida’s second-half defensive performance coming. Because in the first half, the Gators looked and played just like they did in the losses to Georgia and Missouri, giving up all kinds of big plays and failing on third down.
South Carolina’s two quick touchdowns in the first quarter were almost too easy — quarterback Jake Bentley throwing to wide-open tight ends Jacob August and Kyle Markway. Both TDs were the result of blown coverages.
And the defense could not get off the field, with the Gamecocks converting six of seven third-down plays in the half.
The second half was a completely different story. The Gators covered the USC receivers and came up with game-changing stops on third down.
“(We) executed,” Grantham said. “Third down is about matchups, it’s about one-on-ones, it’s about execution, understanding the sticks. But at the end of the day, nothing changed. The calls were the same. The best thing I think that we did is we kept playing.
“(The players) understood, ‘Hey, I just have to execute and do this.’ I thought the coaches on the sideline and in the box did a good job of saying, ‘Here are the fits, here’s what we’ve got to do.’ Players did a good job of taking coaching.
“In the second half we were 6-of-7 on third down and had a couple big stops in the fourth quarter. So we’ll continue to learn from that and move forward.”
UF’s overall defensive performance — 31 points, 18 first downs, 386 yards, seven of 13 third-down conversions — may not look all that good, but that strong second half is something to build on.
“A lot of confidence,” senior defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. “When everybody’s doing their part, when we’re all together, we can (stop anybody).”