Third down's a charm

NEW ORLEANS -- Florida's third-down defense is one of the best in the nation.

Pinpointing exactly why, however, isn't so easy.

The Gators are allowing opponents to convert on only 28 percent of their third downs, which ranks fourth in the country. Depending on whom you ask, there are several reasons: better play on first and second downs, better communication, better discipline and getting pressure without having to blitz.

"We've created a lot more favorable down and distances on third down," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "Certainly your percentages are going to increase when you're third-and-7-plus as opposed to third-and-4. We're winning earlier on the earlier downs."

The Gators' D has faced third-and-7 yards or longer 98 times this season and has allowed opponents to convert a first down just 16 times (16.3 percent). Only once in 22 tries has an opponent converted a third-and-13 or longer.

That's an indication that the players have a better understanding of the defense and are able to communicate better on the field, safety Josh Evans said.

"That was something we lacked last year," Evans said. "And [the players are] learning to anticipate certain calls. We can't get locked into a certain call and not be ready for certain tricks and formations and that's what we've been improving on this year. We've gotten faster, quicker, and we can move that linebacker outside or tell the corner he's in man or zone and things like that."

It's also an indication of how well the secondary is playing. The Gators have been able to lock down receivers in man coverage and avoid giving up big plays. Opponents have had 28 pass plays of 20 yards or longer this season but only six of those have come on third down. UF has also intercepted six passes and caused another turnover (after a 56-yard gain) on seven other third downs.

That's without a consistent pass rush, either. The Gators have at times been able to generate pressure with just four rushers.

"Learning the system and not having to think about what you have to do on this play or where you have to be on this call or this shift [has been a reason for the success]," defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "And just being comfortable with the system, guys are able to relax and buy in."