Strong finishes lead to fast start for Florida
No. 14 Florida had two numbers plastered around its football facility during the offseason.
Players saw them daily. Coaches repeated them for motivation. They became as ingrained as the playbook.
Those numbers, 72 and 22, were what opponents and the Gators scored, respectively, in the fourth quarter of Southeastern Conference games last season. They offered a clear picture of coach Will Muschamp's team, the one he called soft in November and the one that wasn't nearly competitive enough late in games.
The message was delivered repeatedly over eight months.
Now, the Gators are doing something about it. Florida, which hosts Kentucky on Saturday, has gotten off to a great start by finishing games.
''It stuck in our heads. We don't want to have that score (again),'' receiver Frankie Hammond said Monday. ''It needs to be flipped around at the end of this season.''
At Florida's current pace, it would end up even more lopsided.
The Gators have outscored their three opponents 27-0 in the fourth quarter this season and 50-13 in the second half.
''That's huge for us,'' said quarterback Jeff Driskel, named the SEC's offensive player of the week. ''Going into the offseason, the strength staff and the coaches really drilled it into our head that we got outscored big time in the fourth quarter last year. And we went into this year knowing that we would have to be more conditioned, you know, physically and mentally to be able to handle the fourth quarter.
''Thus far, we're doing a good job.''
Florida's second-half success is about more than just conditioning, though.
The Gators have added depth, which helps keep players fresh. And maybe more importantly, Muschamp and his assistants are making the right adjustments, players are executing them to perfection and everyone on the sideline is on the same page in crunch time.
Muschamp also credits experience and maturity.
''We're a more experienced football team than we were a year ago,'' he said. ''We're a little more mature football team at times, from the standpoint of understanding what it takes to be successful and buying in with each other. I think that a lot of that camaraderie, those things are certainly much improved. But experience and maturity has a lot to do with that.''
Florida held Bowling Green, Texas A&M and Tennessee - the last two on the road - to just 125 yards combined in the final 15 minutes. Those teams were 1 of 14 on third down, with the Gators forcing nine punts and adding an interception and a fumble.
The Gators were especially good in the second half against Tennessee on Saturday, holding the Volunteers to just 37 yards over the final 20 minutes.
That kind of defense helped Florida turn a seven-point deficit (20-13) into a 17-point win (37-20).
''As much as anything, it brings the guys confidence, poise that regardless of the situation or the circumstances we can make this thing happen,'' Muschamp said. ''I also think it helps guys recognize when you're doing things well and when you're not doing things well. Part of being a good player and being a good team is understanding why you're having success or why you're not having it.''
Sure, there are other reasons for Florida's early season success.
Senior Mike Gillislee leads the conference in rushing with 346 yards. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel is making progress every week as the starter. And Hammond, fullback Trey Burton and tight end Jordan Reed have emerged as key playmakers.
But there's little doubt that Florida's second-half success has been huge in all three victories.
''We had a big emphasis on that this offseason,'' linebacker Jon Bostic said. ''We want to play better in the second half. We've got to be able to last longer than we did last year. We kind of got tired toward the end of games and couldn't get teams off the field. That was one thing we said this offseason: we've got to make sure we're able to last longer than our opponents and be able to get them off the field and get the offense back on the field.
''We've got to try to do the same this week.''