Key to success: Gators dominating third down

By Adam Silverstein
October 4, 2013

Success on third down is a tough-to-reach pillar head coach Will Muschamp has held on a pedestal and been trying to instill in the Florida Gators since the day he took over the program. Through the first four games of the 2013 season, his team is one of the best in the nation on the game’s most important down.

Florida is one of only four teams in the country ranked in the top 15 in third-down conversion percentage defense (first) and third-down conversion percentage offense (15th). The others – Louisville (second, second), UCLA (13th, first) and Iowa (eighth, 13th) – are a combined 11-1 on the season.

Muschamp chalks up the Gators’ success on defense to their ability to rush the passer with four players and deploy a varied pressure package while either covering man-to-man in the secondary or establishing good zone coverage early in the game.

“It’s something we emphasize, we talk about it a lot,” he said on Monday. “There’s a little subtle changes on 1st-and-10, second down for us, but third down can be very drastic depending on the team we’re facing and what we carry into a game. So we try to make the offense adjust in those situations each game based on what they do.”

Florida does extensive work on third downs from Tuesday to Thursday each week and the extra practice has paid dividends on the field as UF has only allowed eight third-down conversions on 45 attempts (.178) this season.

“We emphasize that a lot because that’s basically the down that you get off the field. Three-and-outs, third downs, things like that, we know that’s go-time,” said sophomore Buck linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr. “So everybody, the defensive line pins their ears back and the secondary gets ready to cover and stuff like that so we can get off the field and get our offense back on the field. That’s like putting up points for us.”

Considering the Gators’ offense is facing the best third-down defense in the nation on a daily basis in practice, it is no wonder that the unit has drastically improved on that down as well.

Just one year ago, Florida finished the season ranked 85th in third-down conversions, registering just 65 on the season and only converting at a .365 clip. Through four games in 2013, the Gators already have 30 third-down conversions and are converting more than half of their opportunities (.517).

“We’re a lot better. We’re keeping ourselves in better down and distance with how we measure those and what we call in those situations,” offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Tuesday. “I don’t think we’re really doing anything different. We’re just executing it, and maybe some of the plays that we’re designing, the kids are more comfortable with.”

UF’s success on third down offensively is one major reason why it is also ranked first nationally in time of possession. Florida averages 39 minutes of possession per game, three minutes more than the next team, and holds onto the ball for nearly 65 percent of any given contest.

“It is important to keep our defense off the field so they can get rest. It means we’re getting first downs, we’re executing, we’re doing things right,” said redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy.

Though the starting signal caller is excited about the Gators’ success in time of possession, both Muschamp and Pease concurred that the statistic is overrated.

“Time of possession doesn’t really [indicate] more winning or losing football games,” Muschamp said. “It’s good from the standpoint of their offense isn’t on the field, but there’s no direct relation on winning football games on ball possession.”

There is a correlation between time of possession and boredom, however. Fowler and some of his teammates indicated as much this week.

“Yeah, it is [boring]. Dang,” he said. “[The first half against Kentucky] was like the fastest half of my life, even like when I was in high school. It was crazy. The offense was on the field for a long time. What did they have, like, two series in the first quarter or something like that?

“That’s our job though to get three-and-outs. When we get as many three-and-outs like that, you think, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t get as many three and outs.’ It’s nice to stay on the field and stuff like that, but it is what it is.”

Sophomore defensive end Jonathan Bullard agreed that the Kentucky game was boring for Florida’s defense, saying it “felt like we were sitting there forever.” Though he was glad to be fresh every time he stepped on the field, he also wanted to make sure he didn’t get “tight and cold” waiting on the sideline for his next chance to play.

Senior safety Jaylen Watkins added that UF’s ball control and time of possession domination is “bittersweet,” but Murphy sees nothing distasteful about it whatsoever.

“That’s a problem [the defense is] going to have to deal with hopefully for the rest of the season,” he quipped.

6 Comments

  1. Ken (CA) says:

    We have always been great on defense on 3rd down, but I think we are more fortunate to be doing well on 3rd down on offense. The more I see it, the less I like Muschamp’s “ball control offense” mentality. While on paper it seems good, we aren’t knocking teams out and putting them away like we should be. We are 1 turnover away from letting them get right back in the game. If Kentucky had scored on that interception, it could very easily have been a nail biter to the very end. It would be nice to knock out hard the teams we should and not give them any hope rather than let them keep hanging around knowing that just 1 mistake by us and they are back in it.

    • Joe says:

      Turnovers and TOP are the key to this offense. It’s essential to win the turnover battle. This team will look very different when we win T.O. consistently
      .

  2. Michael Jones says:

    We don’t “knock teams out” and “put them away” because we’re not that good. We should be happy with every win we get. Spurrier spoiled us so that we think we have to blow every team in the country out or it’s a huge failure.

    The thing about time of possession can be a little bit misleading. It IS a factor when you’re methodically driving the ball up and down the field, finishing drives for scores, and keeping your defense fresh so that it doesn’t wear out in the 4th quarter. It ISN’T a factor for quick-strike Oregon-type teams that score quickly and then give the ball back to a more methodical team who ends up having more “time of possession” but is actually getting their butt kicked.

    • Ken (CA) says:

      I don’t expect us to put away every team, although that would be sweet. Teams we “should beat”, though such as UK or Toledo (or even Miami or tenn) we left a lot of points on the board and could have hung another 2-3 scores at least in each of those games. We aren’t as bad a team as you are implying, and with our defense holding them so tough on 3rd downs, I don’t think we are taking as much advantage of it as we could by the constant grind, grind, grind, Never give them hope they can hang with you or eventually someone that shouldn’t, will

    • Joe says:

      Double edged sword – I’d rather give Oregon the ball (1) 3:00 minute possession every quarter and have (1) 12:00 minute possession than vice versa – a la LSU/Oregon championship game. Like you said it’s a misleading stat but win the turnover battle and time of possession and game is sealed!!!

  3. Timmy T says:

    I agree wholeheartedly Ken. We need to tack on some insurance points to put teams away. 28 points a game would work for me, but 31 plus would be awesome. I think Murph will progress nicely as the season goes on so I’m pretty confident we are headed that way. I’m on board whatever happens.

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