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We tried to find a Florida Gators defense this bad on third down. We couldn’t come close.

We watched every defensive third-down to see why Florida is historically bad on the money down.
 
The Florida Gators allowed a 54-yard touchdown on third-and-8 last week against LSU.
The Florida Gators allowed a 54-yard touchdown on third-and-8 last week against LSU. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Oct. 19, 2022|Updated Oct. 20, 2022

When Jim McElwain led the Florida Gators, hype men on the sidelines started waving Money Down signs on third down — because third-down success leads to future NFL paydays.

Through Billy Napier’s first seven games, the Gators look broke.

UF’s third-down defense is last in the country, allowing opponents to convert on 52.6% of their chances. Since 2009, only four Power Five teams were worse: 2021 Kansas (54.6%), 2017 Oregon State (53.2%), 2013 Purdue (56.6%) and 2011 Maryland (53.8%). Those teams collectively finished 6-42.

Related: How Billy Napier’s Florida Gators differ from Dan Mullen’s final team

We’d like to tell you the last time the Gators’ third-down defense was this bad, but we can’t; UF’s media guides didn’t start listing conversion rates regularly until 1981. But since then, only three Gators defenses allowed opponents to convert more than 40% of the time: 2020, ‘07 and ‘04. That means this unit is more than 11 percentage points worse than any UF has fielded in the lifetime of 32-year-old co-coordinator Patrick Toney.

Utah tight end Brant Kuithe caught a third-down touchdown at Florida in the Gators' opener.
Utah tight end Brant Kuithe caught a third-down touchdown at Florida in the Gators' opener. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

Napier reiterated Wednesday that there’s no secret formula to fix the problem, because there is no single recurring issue.

“It’s not like you can say, ‘Let’s go watch all the third downs and just pick one thing …’” Napier said.

We watched all the third downs from this season, excluding the blowout win over Division I-AA Eastern Washington. We could not just pick one thing.

Related: The Florida Gators built Billy Napier’s army. What will it actually do?

The Gators have failed to defend receivers slipping out of the backfield (Utah, Kentucky). They have missed tackles (Kentucky, Missouri, USF and LSU), been beaten in one-on-one plays (LSU, USF, Tennessee) and failed to set the edge on runs (Tennessee, LSU).

Their run defense was too weak at times against Tennessee and Utah. Their pass defense was too soft at times against Missouri; no defender was within five yards of the receiver on one third-and-18 conversion.

Utah running back Tavion Thomas rushed for a score on third down at Florida in the opener.
Utah running back Tavion Thomas rushed for a score on third down at Florida in the opener. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

Some of the credit goes to the opponents. Utah’s Cam Rising, USF’s Gerry Bohanon, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker and Missouri’s Brady Cook all had impressive scrambles.

Some of the problems were solely self-inflicted. Florida committed back-to-back penalties in the fourth quarter at Knoxville to give Tennessee a clock-draining fresh set of downs.

The ugliest sequence came in the win over USF. Bohanon appeared to scramble for a conversion on third and 8, but the play was negated by a penalty. The Gators’ defense got a second chance on third-and-18 ... and gave up a 21-yard rush by Brian Battie.

“I think there’s a lot of contributing factors,” Napier said, “and we’re in the middle of trying to make some adjustments there.”

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If there is one underlying factor, it’s the lack of a pass rush.

The Gators’ I-A opponents have dropped back 47 times on third down. Only one ended in a sack. That’s part of a general issue — Florida is tied for 79th nationally with 1.9 sacks per game — and feeds into the ugliest statistic of them all.

Florida Gators co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney is in his first year at UF.
Florida Gators co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney is in his first year at UF. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Napier said the national average for third-and-long conversions is 15%. On third-and-8 or more, I-A opponents are 14-of-34 against the Gators —a blistering 41%.

Even that bleak figure is misleadingly positive. On two of UF’s third-and-long stops last week, LSU gained enough yardage to set up fourth and short; the Tigers converted both times. It’s hard to force a punt when the quarterback has more than 4 seconds to throw, as Jayden Daniels did twice in the first quarter alone.

Related: What a Nick Saban bestseller taught us about Florida Gators’ Billy Napier

Napier insists the problems are fixable. UF has played well at times — Kentucky was 4-of-13 on the money down, and the Gators had a pair of third-down interceptions against Missouri. Perhaps the inconsistencies can be smoothed out during this open date before next weekend’s showdown with No. 1 Georgia.

If not, the Gators’ defense will be in for a long afternoon in Jacksonville.

Injury update

Napier said guard O’Cyrus Torrence practiced yesterday and is “making great progress” after missing the LSU game with a lower-body injury. Torrence, who followed Napier from Louisiana, was named a midseason All-American this week by the Associated Press, Pro Football Focus, CBS Sports and The Athletic.

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