The overwhelming narrative surrounding Florida's football program since the 2009 season has been that the Gators haven't had two sturdy offensive legs to stand on.
Well, this season has been different, until it hasn't. While Florida's total offense, passing, rushing and scoring statistics have gone up considerably halfway through Year 2 of the Jim McElwain era, the Gators have had a real problem getting into the end zone when working with a short field.
Entering Saturday's game against rival Georgia, the Gators rank 13th in the SEC and 121st nationally in red-zone scoring, converting just 72 percent (18 of 25) of the time. As far as touchdowns go, Florida is scoring them just 56 percent of the time (14 of 25). Florida averages 389.9 yards per game outside of the red zone and just 36.7 inside it (averaging four red-zone drives per game). Florida is averaging 3.1 rushing yards per attempt, 18.7 points and has just 15 first downs in the red zone.
Those numbers have been debilitating for an offense that seems to take two steps forward with the ball, only to slide five yards back the closer it gets to the end zone.
In their most recent game Oct. 15, the Gators had their worst red-zone showing, scoring twice on four trips against Missouri. The Gators took their first drive 62 yards to Mizzou's 14-yard line before Eddy Pineiro missed a 32-yard field goal. Four drives later, Florida drove 70 yards to Mizzou's 7 before settling for a field goal. Florida didn't score a red-zone TD until late in the third quarter, on a 20-yard Tyrie Cleveland catch. Florida capped its red-zone trips with a fumble at the 1-yard line a little more than six minutes left in the game.
Six Florida drives ended on Mizzou's side without any points.
So why are the Gators appear to be allergic to the end zone the closer they get to it? Well, the players have some theories. But as quarterback Luke Del Rio put it, “It’s not like there’s been one thing the entire year that’s been keeping us from scoring.”
That can be seen as both good and bad. The good news is that there isn't a constant stumbling block forever in this team's way. On the flip side, that just means that there are still a multitude of issues that the Gators must overcome before they can be more efficient in the red zone.
Pick your poison, Gators.
Running back Mark Thompson chalks up Florida's red-zone struggles to the mental side. Thompson said he's seen guys pressing and itching too much for the end zone, causing anxiety inside the 20.
“We have to keep our focus and concentrate when we get in there because we’re about to score and we shouldn’t be the ones jittery and a little edgy," Thompson said. "We should be the powerful ones who marched all the way down the field to where we want to be.”
In order to curb that anxious play, Thompson said the coaches implemented different snap counts during the bye week to try and get the offense to jump. Florida has taken a more hands-on approach to their red-zone nightmares by making players as uncomfortable as possible now, so that they aren't dealing with the same execution issues when it counts.
Interestingly enough, turnovers haven't been the issue for Florida. The Gators are tied for fifth in the SEC with just two red-zone turnovers. So when Del Rio looks back at film, he sees little things -- nagging things -- complicating trips to the goal line. A misalignment here. An overthrow there. A missed block and false start.
Procedural issues and a lack of focus have paralyzed this team near the end zone, which Del Rio said can be affected by space -- or a lack thereof.
Naturally, the closer you get to the goal line, the wider the field gets, and the smaller the play windows are. Routes get faster, coverage is tighter and there’s less time in the pocket because the defensive line has help immediately behind it, allowing linemen to pin their ears back toward the backfield.
You combat that by capitalizing on details, such as splits, who’s the primary offensive target and the depth on passing routes. Basically, it's the little things.
“It’s just details and being able to execute to nuances of every play," said Del Rio, who is completing just 40 percent of his passes in the red zone with three touchdowns. "You can get away with in the middle of the field, where you have some room for error. But down there everything’s so tight, so any slight error gets magnified.”
The Gators are hoping those errors were mostly exorcised over the bye week, and they could get a boost in red-zone production against the Bulldogs. Georgia ranks last in the SEC, giving up scores on 95.5 percent of red-zone trips (21 of 22). Teams have scored touchdowns on 16 trips inside the 20, which is 72.7 percent of the time.
If there was ever a time for the Gators to get out of a red-zone funk, it's Saturday.
"Just about every game this season, we always move the ball and we know we can move the ball as an offense – that’s not a concern of ours," Thompson said. "But when we get into the red zone, we have to be more focused.”