Florida defense must continue limiting extended drives against Tennessee

When asked why he runs the offense he does, Billy Napier likes to cite “complementary football”. The main idea behind that is the offense won’t put the defense is bad spots. It will complement what it’s trying to do.

Complementary football is a two-way street, however, and Florida’s defense hasn’t held up its end of the bargain in recent years.

The best thing a defense can do for an offense is get off the field with stops quickly. Doing so will tend to give the offense better field position, plus or minus special teams outcomes. It also gives the offense more options with how it wants to play.

A defense getting gashed might lead an offensive play caller to try to slow the game down at the expense of rhythm and flow. However, a defense that gives up a lot of points may instead force an offense to have to keep pace with the opponent. The latter is a nightmare scenario for a 2023 Florida team that is not terribly explosive yet and either wouldn’t or couldn’t move with a sense of urgency late against Utah.

There is no one single accepted measure for what counts as “getting off the field with stops” for a defense. Available yards (and its variants) from Brian Fremeau is a good stat among the newer set, but it’s not exactly what I was looking for here. So, I created a quick and dirty measure that goes as follows.

An extended drive is one that goes at least 45 yards or at least ten plays. Why? A team that takes the ball at its own 25 after a touchback has to go 45 yards to get to the opponent’s 30-yard-line. That spot implies a 47-yard field goal, which is not a gimme but is something most college coaches will try if not forced to go for it by game state. And I picked ten plays because, even if an offense hasn’t gone 45 yards by then, it still shows a defense that can’t get off the field. Maybe they are intentionally letting the offense dink and dunk because of game state, but that won’t happen super often.

Correspondingly, a short field is one where the starting field position is within the opponent’s 45. Is that larger than most folks probably think of as a short field? Probably, but it also does let some points fall through the cracks. Utah started a drive at the Florida 46-yard-line and got a field goal after going 14 yards. That’s neither a short field situation nor an extended drive. Oh well. We’re not going for a new, bulletproof measure here. I will note that I made up these definitions before looking at the data, so I wasn’t crafting something to specifically create a narrative about the numbers I found.

Before getting into this year’s defense so far, which hasn’t played much and will require caveats, let’s calibrate this thing. I looked at last year’s defense, one that disappointed so much, as well as the 2019 defense, the last good one Florida has had to date. I threw out any drives that were at the ends of halves where the team with the ball wasn’t trying to score.

The ’19 unit allowed only 40 extended drives among 135 total that weren’t short fields. That’s about three-in-ten, at 29.6%. Its best was allowing just a single extended drive against four opponents: UT-Martin, Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Missouri. The latter three each had either 12 or 13 drives and only managed a single extended one. Impressive.

The ’22 unit allowed 63 extended drives among 127 total that weren’t short fields. Already we see many more extended drives with fewer total, so you know the percentage is going up. It rose to 49.6%, which is essentially half. South Carolina was the only opponent held to as low as one extended drive.

Regarding short fields, the 2019 defense allowed 3.4 points per short field drive. That’s close to a field goal, which is what you’d want to see from such situations. The 2022 defense allowed 4.8 per short field, which shows a lot more touchdowns being scored.

Now, the 2023 defense has faced a Utah offense that already trended towards ball control and conservatism without its top two quarterbacks and future pro tight end, plus an overmatched FCS opponent in McNeese. That’s not the most challenging slate.

But, strictly speaking with the above definitions, Florida has allowed just two extended drives in 17 situations that weren’t short fields. That comes out to 11.8%.

That said, it’s arguably actually one extended drive in 17 non-short fields faced.

One of the extended drives that Utah had saw the UF defense get a stop, but the infamous two No. 3s penalty allowed the drive to continue. If you break that into two drives, before and after the special teams mishap, then the first half is a stop after 31 yards — so, not an extended drive — and the second half becomes a short field situation because the Utes started again at the Gators’ 44-yard-line. Thus, it’s one extended drive allowed in 17 opportunities, and the percentage drops to 5.9%.

It drops so far because UF didn’t allow any extended drives to McNeese. The Cowboys only had nine drives to work with, but not a one of them hit either 45 yards or ten plays. Utah’s two extended drives were the 70-yard bomb to start the game and then the one penalty-extended series during which the defense did actually get a stop.

The short field scoring rate is not so encouraging yet. It’s either 14 points in three short fields for an average of 4.7, or it’s 17 in four short fields for an average of 4.3. It’s a very small sample size, of course, but it’s something to watch.

Arguably only allowing a single extended drive across two games, that one being a single busted coverage at that, is impressive even given the opponents. The 2019 defense didn’t blank an opponent on extended drives despite pitching three shutouts and playing not one, but two FCS teams.

This year’s figures may only tell us about how limited the shorthanded Utah attack was and how overmatched McNeese was, but a truly bad defense doesn’t do this against anyone. The early returns on the new defense, as limited an assessment we can make, are promising. You simply can’t cherry-pick any two games from last year, much less two consecutive ones, and get a result that looks like this.

Tennessee’s aggressive offense will provide a much stronger test than anything Austin Armstrong’s bunch has seen to date. For Florida to win, both sides of the ball will have to play complementary football. The defense mostly did that against Utah, but the offense didn’t live up to its side of the bargain. Both units will need to do it tomorrow to get the win.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2