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November 2, 2010

Issue: 3rd down defense

A thrilling overtime win over a division rival never fails to lift a team's spirits, but one sobering statistic lingers after Florida's 34-31 defeat of Georgia - the Bulldogs converted 8 of 15 third downs.

During Monday's press conference, third down defense was singled out by Urban Meyer as a problem.

"At times we play great defense," Meyer said. "It's getting off the field that's been a difficult situation for us."

It has not always been so difficult for Florida.

"I've been on this team a while, and third down used to be us getting off the field a little bit quicker," senior strong safety Ahmad Black said.

The numbers back him up.

In the Gators' back-to-back 13-win seasons, Charlie Strong's defense allowed only 29.9 percent and 32.8 percent opponent conversions on third downs respectively.

Over the last three games, opponents have averaged 48.9-percent conversions on third down.

Meyer said he talked to first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin about the issue. The defense's leaders believe execution, not scheme, is the problem.

"We had a good defense called sometimes and just didn't get our job done," Black said. "(There were) a couple missed assignments."

Black is not one to miss assignments. He led all Gator defenders with 12 tackles on Saturday. Earlier in the season he said if he leads the team in tackles it means things aren't going well.

The linebackers are plenty motivated to step up and take the load off Black.

"To let a team convert on a third down, it hurts the defense as well," senior linebacker Brandon Hicks said. "It feels like we didn't do our job."

For the Gators, it hurt the most when a 31-24 lead could not be protected with only 6:56 left in the fourth quarter. On third-and-10, Aaron Murray found A.J. Green to avoid a three-and-out. On third-and-goal from the 15-yard-line, they would connect again on the touchdown that tied the game at 31-31.

"We have to execute each and every down no matter what it is - third and long, fourth and short, first and long - it doesn't matter," Hicks said.

Though one could easily dismiss Hicks vow to execute better as a tired cliché, some things are changing for the better on the defense.

In overtime, on third-and-9, it was the heavily criticized, mistake-prone Will Hill who made the play of the game.

"We all knew (Hill) could do it. It was just a matter of time," Black said. "I never doubted him. I always stayed behind him and grounded him every day. I push him and tell him every day 'let's go get better,' and that's what he did."

After facing a Georgia offense on a three-week streak of posting 40 or more points on SEC defenses, this week the Gators face a less potent opponent.

Vanderbilt managed to convert only 1 of 11 third downs in its 49-14 loss on Saturday. The previous week against South Carolina, the Commodores converted 3 of 15 third downs.


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