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.