GAINESVILLE -- The No. 18 Gators are world-beaters in a number of defensive categories nationally, but UF is Floyd Mayweather Jr. money when it comes to forcing opponents off the field on third down.
Sophomore sensation Dante Fowler Jr. calls it “gold time,” as the Gators top the country in third-down defense: allowing a ridiculous 17.8 percent (8-of-45) conversion rate.
“We emphasize it a lot, because that’s basically the down you get off the field, so three-and-outs, third downs, things like that,” said Fowler, who is second in the Southeastern Conference in tackles for loss (6.0).
“Everybody, the defensive line pins their eyes back and the secondary gets ready, so we can get off the field and get our offense back on the field. That’s like putting up points for us.”
Florida (3-1, 2-0 SEC) and Arkansas (3-2, 0-1) meet Saturday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 — UF’s first night game in The Swamp since its 2011 regular-season finale loss to Florida State — in a battle of strengths: The Gators’ suffocating defense versus the Razorbacks’ physical rushing attack.
Under new coach Bret Bielema, Arkansas averages more rushing yards per game (237) than Florida has allowed all season (214).
In addition to their third-down dominance, the Gators lead the nation in rushing defense, surrendering just 53.50 yards per contest.
Something has to give Saturday night.
“They going to be physical,” UF senior defensive tackle Damien Jacobs said. “They going to definitely try to come out and establish their will. … They going to line up there and run it there until you stop them.”
Despite losing six players to the NFL and star tackle Dominique Easley for the season, Florida’s impenetrable defense still tops the conference in an absurd eight statistical categories: scoring defense, total defense, rushing and passing defense, opponent first downs, red zone efficiency, opponents’ long scrimmage plays and, obviously, third-down defense.
And yet, they remain unsatisfied.
“We haven’t played a perfect game yet, and that’s what [coach Will Muschamp] demands,” nose tackle Darius “Bear” Cummings said.
Said Muschamp: “I know in this business how easy you can travel from the outhouse to the penthouse in a second, or the penthouse to the outhouse in a second.”
Arkansas boasts a pair of talented underclassmen tailbacks: freshman Alex Collins, a former South Plantation High standout, and sophomore Jonathan Williams. The duo has combined for 1,068 yards, six touchdowns and a conference-leading seven 100-yard rushing performances.
“We haven’t faced anybody that’s had the physicality that they’re going to play with on the offensive line, the quality of backs or the matchups outside,” Muschamp said.