Third-down conversions have been a point of emphasis for Florida Gators coach Will Muschamp — mostly because the team has performed so poorly when facing them during his time as coach.
In 2011, the Gators faced 159 third downs. They converted 49. Converting at 30.8 percent, Florida ranked No. 111 in the FBS.
This season, the trend continued and actually grew worse.
In its three games against Bowling Green, Texas A&M and Tennessee, Florida faced 41 third downs and converted 11. With a 26.8 percent conversion rate, Florida ranked No. 116 this season, below teams such as South Alabama, Massachusetts and Florida International.
Saturday, in a 38-0 win against Kentucky, Florida had its best third-down game during the Muschamp era.
The Gators were 12-of-17 on third downs, a conversion rate that is slightly more than 70 percent. The rate barely tops a 7-of-10 performance against Florida Atlantic in 2011.
“We went to that complicated quarterback sneak,” Muschamp joked after the game. Both starter Jeff Driskel and replacement Jacoby Brissett snuck for touchdowns, though only Brissett’s was on third down.
“Execution,” Muschamp said, taking a more serious approach. “I think we just made some nice throws and conversions. We had some short yardage stuff and we were able to convert those.”
Key in the conversion was Driskel.
After failing to convert three third-down attempts to begin the game, including one from the Kentucky eight-yard line that forced Florida to settle for a field goal, he settled in.
On a day he threw his first interception of the season and looked hesitant throughout, the drive he led to begin the fourth quarter was perhaps his best of the season.
Starting from its own 28-yard line, the Florida offense went to work with a 24-0 lead.
The first third down, a 3rd and 1 from the Florida 37-yard line, was picked up by Mike Gilislee on a rush to the right side for three yards.
From there, the onus was on Driskel.
Facing a 3rd and 8, he hit Jordan Reed on a crossing pattern to pick up 12 yards and a first down in Kentucky territory. Five players later, he found Frankie Hammond Jr. on a slant route, needing four yards and gaining 16.
The final third-down attempt came from the Kentucky seven-yard line. Driskel powered his way up the middle on 3rd and four, picking up six yards down to the one-yard line.
On the next play, he kept it himself again, rushing for a touchdown on his final play of the game.
In all, Florida was 4-for-4 on third downs on the drive, which lasted 9:03, Florida’s longest drive since 2005. The sustained offense is a positive sign for a team that has relied on big plays to create offense at time this season.
“We did a nice job of protecting, getting open and making plays,” Driskel said. “I’m sure that’s going to make the coaching staff happy that we really stepped up our play and really got dialed in on third downs.”
Driskel’s teammate, Omar Hunter, said the offense’s ability to convert on third downs and sustain drives goes hand-in-hand with improving the team’s defense.
Last season, the defense was forced to stay on the field far more than opponents, often tiring by the end of the game. This season, a better offense has helped the defense.
“I love it. That’s the best,” Hunter said. ““Any time our offense can wear down the opposing team’s defense and keep the ball, it keeps us fresher.”