GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida leads the SEC and ranks No. 6 nationally in third-down conversions.
Surprised? So was UF quarterback Luke Del Rio.
“Wow,” he said Monday upon hearing the stats.
Last year the Gators ranked 11th in the SEC and 94th nationally at 36.4 percent. Their offense is still a working in progress this season, but the unit has excelled on third down with a 50.4 percent conversion rate.
That’s in spite of the second-half meltdown at Tennessee when Florida went six consecutive drives without a first down.
Del Rio, for all his shortcomings, has provided offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier with drastic improvement in this category. UF has converted 54 percent of its third-down attempts with him under center.
“I think it starts with coach Mac and coach Nuss,” Del Rio said. “They’ve done a really good job at letting us know that there’s an importance to third down. There’s a reason why the defense calls it money down. Good teams convert on third down and good teams get the other team’s offense off the field. Being able to extend drives is big.
“It’s demoralizing for a defense when you get to third and long and convert. It’s like ‘Man, what do we have to do to get them off the field?’ It definitely kind of heightens your awareness that if you don’t get this you’re going to the bench. So it’s a focal point of our offense. We need to continue to do well in that area.”
It’s a point of focus for Florida’s defense as well. UF also leads the SEC and ranks No. 5 nationally in opponent third-down conversions. That’s progress from where the Gators were in 2015, when they ranked sixth in the league.
“Third down is the money down,” defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. said. “We get off the field and you put the offense back on the field and get them in position to score points.
“The whole objective of the game. Being that third down is the most important down, that’s a major emphasis going into each week.”
Helping emphasize that to Cox & Co. are Jacob Gabriel and Kane Ivers-Osthus, the two UF students who jump and scream holding “money down” signs every time it’s third down for the Florida defense.
“They’re out of control,” defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said on Gator Talk. “It’s a pretty cool deal. Their voices are more hoarse than mine. Because we’ll have a third-down period and for 10-12 minutes they’re yelling ‘money down’ at the top of their lungs.
“So it’s not just game day, it’s practice. It’s every day of the week. It’s a big deal.”
Florida’s third-down success has been a big deal this season, and one of the reasons why the Gators sit atop the SEC East standings with a top-10 ranking.
For them to stay there, they need to keep cashing in on money down.
“That’s something that is kind of lost at times,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “Offensively, winning third downs and creating a new set of downs, meaning you change at least 10 yards the field position. What our defense has done to get off the field, it’s been pretty amazing.
“Our guys understand the situational football. It’s been very good. It’s a money down on both sides of the ball.”