GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp was obviously pleased that his offense had so much success on third down against Kentucky, because that was something the Gators hadn’t had much of through the first three games.
But so was DT Omar Hunter.
UF’s 12-of-17 performance on third downs was just as helpful to the defense. It gave the Gators time to rest, which meant they had more energy on the field -- and that contributed to UF’s first shutout of a Southeastern Conference opponent since a 52-0 rout of Mississippi State in 2001.
"Any time our offense can wear down the opposing team’s defense and keep the ball, it keeps us fresher so when we go back we can create some more turnovers and get some three-and-outs," Hunter said after the Gators’ 38-0 victory. "Everything works hand in hand, whether special teams, offense or defense.
Florida had been abysmal on third down through the first three weeks, converting just 27 percent of its chances. In fact, the Gators had one less third-down conversion in their first three games combined (11) than they did against the Wildcats. Why were the Gators better?
"We went to that complicated quarterback sneak," UF coach Will Muschamp joked.
Actually, there are legitimate reasons. In the three previous games, there were throws available that QB Jeff Driskel could have made but wasn’t able to, whether it was because of protection issues or not making the right read. Driskel made them on Saturday.
After misfiring on his first two third-down throws, Driskel completed seven of his next eight third-down throws. All went for first downs or a touchdown.
Plus, the offensive line was able to a better push on third-down runs. With the exception of a false start by RT Kyle Koehne and a fumble by Driskel (which occurred on back-to-back snaps), the Gators were able to run for first downs five times in six opportunities.
"The throws have been there in previous games," Muschamp said. "We haven’t necessarily gotten them, whether it was the protection or whatever the issue. We just made some nice throws and conversions. We had some short-yardage stuff and we were able to convert those.
"... First person you look at is yourself. Then, is it execution? are we asking them to do too much? I think there was a little bit of that (in past games), but nothing (Saturday). We had some throws there. We made the plays. We made the catches. We made the conversions."
But is that because Kentucky is one of the nation’s worst teams in third-down defense (54 percent, 114th nationally out of 120 teams)? Or have the Gators actually figured something out?
It’ll be clear enough beginning in two weeks. All of Florida’s six remaining BCS league opponents (LSU, Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Missouri and Florida State) rank in the top 45 nationally in third-down defense. That includes three in the top 10: FSU (fourth), South Carolina (eighth) and LSU (10th).
"We’ve got to get better on third down," Driskel said.
Freshman OT D.J. Humphries was brought in at left tackle against Kentucky in place of Xavier Nixon. Muschamp said the move was done to pick up the tempo a big and that Humphries deserves a chance to play. As for whether Nixon or Humphries will start against LSU, here was Muschamp’s response: "We’ll see. We’ll see who practices the best."
WR Quinton Dunbar is not shy about voicing his displeasure. Remember, in the season opener he went over to Jacoby Brissett on the sideline and complained after Driskel threw behind him. Against Kentucky, he was visibly upset when Driskel overthrew him for what would have been a touchdown. Driskel came right back to him on the next play, though.
TE Jordan Reed made one of the worst and best plays of the season against Kentucky. He held onto a pass from Driskel despite being hammered in the head by Kentucky S Mikie Benton and hit on the other side by S Ashely Lowery. Benton was penalized 15 yards for the hit. It was a tremendous catch. However, in the third quarter he jumped at least two steps too early to try and catch a pass from Driskel. He was wide open and it would have been an easy catch had he not jumped for really no reason.