- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Halftime deficits don’t mean a thing to the Florida football team.
The Gators are evaluating and regrouping during the 20-minute break. They are minimizing mistakes and making plays.
Then they are finishing games in the fourth quarter.
"We have put a tremendous emphasis on winning the fourth quarter and winning the second half and wearing down our opponent," UF coach Will Muschamp said after the Gators’ 37-20 victory over Tennessee at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night. "That’s something that we’ve been able to do in the first three ballgames. That’s something that our kids have bought into doing."
Florida struggled to finish in 2011, getting outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarter in eight Southeastern Conference games, including a scoreless October in losses to Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. The Gators -- with virtually the same lineup and coaching staff -- have already outscored Texas A&M and Tennessee 17-0 in the fourth quarter.
Florida has out-scored its three opponents 50-13 in the second half in its three games this season, including 27-0 in the fourth quarter. The Gators, seemingly overnight, have become a mentally tougher team.
Just in time for another October gauntlet that will define their season.
"They believe that," Muschamp said. "We grew up a lot last year. You sit in the locker room at Auburn and South Carolina and Jacksonville (after getting beat), it’s tough. It’s hard. These guys have a lot of pride. We’re the University of Florida. These guys didn’t’ come here to go 7-6.
"Are we where we want to be? Heck no. Let’s not start celebrating here. Let’s be realistic where we are. We’ve got a long way to go but we’ve got guys who bought into what we’re trying to do and that’s what you need to have."
Florida outscored only Kentucky (7-0) and South Carolina (6-3) in the fourth quarter last season. The Gators gave up at least 10 points five times and were outscored 45-0 in those October losses to Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. UF scored seven points in the fourth quarter against A&M and 10 points in the fourth quarter against Tennessee this season, but more impressive is the fact that it came on the road with a sophomore quarterback making his first two starts.
Florida has out-gained A&M and UT by a combined 271-37 in the fourth quarter. UF held a 152-5 edge over the Vols, which included holding the Vols to minus-3 yards rushing.
"Just an emphasis of finishing," linebacker Jon Bostic said. "The offense is trying to run the ball. They’re trying to move the chains, run the clock. We’ve just got to do our job getting the ball back to them as many times as we need to.
"You can definitely say (the Gators are a mentally tougher team) but we’ve still got a long ways to go. We see a lot an improvement in a lot of areas."
Florida has Kentucky on Saturday, a bye week, and then October games against LSU, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Georgia. Those five teams have out-scored their opponents 134-51 in the fourth quarter. The Gators, linebacker Lerentee McCray said, are ready, especially since they’ve rallied from half-time deficits in back-to-back weeks after going 0-5 under Muschamp when trailing at half.
"We feel like we’re battle tested," McCray said. "But we still feel like we’ve got a lot of work to do."
1. P Kyle Christy is quickly becoming a weapon in the field-position game. The sophomore had three kicks of at least 50 yards, including a 55-yarder, and helped UF flip field position after several bad offensive series. He bailed the Gators out with that 55-yarder after their first possession lost 3 yards and Christy had to kick from his own end zone. Remember, he wasn’t the starter the first half of last season because he wasn’t getting the ball off quickly enough. Now he’s third in the SEC with a 45.2 average.
2. Time of possession is generally one of the most over-rated stats in football, but it means a little bit more for teams like UF that want to play ball-control and run the football. The Gators lead the SEC in time of possession (33:49) but the most impressive part of that stat is that they hold more than a two-to-one edge in the fourth quarter in SEC games. UF has held the ball for 20:37 in victories over Texas A&M and Tennessee.
3. One of the biggest issues about Florida’s offense last season was the lack of intermediate and deep throws in the passing game. Even though Jeff Driskel has made just two starts, he’s already better at throwing the ball down the field than redshirt senior John Brantley was last year. Driskel is averaging 9.5 yards per attempt in three games, a full yard better than Brantley did in 2011.
How are the Gators 3-0 despite being one of the worst teams in the SEC in third-down conversions? UF is converting just 26.8 percent on third down (11-for-41), which ranks 13th in the 14-team league. Only Vanderbilt (11-for-42, 26.2 percent) is worse.
Why did it take so long for the coaching staff to make the call on Driskel? It’s hard to believe that both players looked as good as Driskel has in his two starts. Maybe Driskel’s one of those guys who is a better game player than practice player. Tim Tebow was like that. So was Rex Grossman.
Why are the Gators starting slowly on defense? Clamping down defensively in the second half is impressive, but it seems to take the defense a full half to get things figured out each week. At some point that will cost UF.
It’s either all or nothing for the Gators in terms of penalties so far this season. UF committed 14 in the opener, three against Texas A&M, and eight against Tennessee.
Here’s the breakdown from the game as well as the entire season:
Tennessee (eight penalties, 78 yards)
Pass interference (2): Roberson (15 yards), Jaylen Watkins (15 yards)
Unsportsmanlike conduct (1): Xavier Nixon (15 yards)
False start (1): Kyle Koehne (5 yards)
Roughing the passer (1): Dominique Easley (3 yards)
Substitution infraction (1): UF (5 yards)
Season (25 penalties for 205 yards)
Delay of game (3): Christy (5 yards), Driskel twice (10 yards)
Roughing the passer (3): McCray twice (16 yards), Easley (3 yards)
Defensive holding (3): Cody Riggs (1 yard), Roberson (10 yards), Poole (10 yards)
Pass interference (2): Roberson (15 yards), Watkins (15 yards)
Substitution infraction (2): defense (5 yards), offense (5 yards)
Offsides (2): Loucheiz Purifoy on kickoff (5 yards), McCray (5 yards)
Unsportsmanlike conduct (1): Nixon (15 yards)
Illegal cut block (1): James Wilson (15 yards)
After three games, Roberson has taken over for McCray as the Gators’ penalty yardage leader (40 yards). He is tied with McCray for the lead in number of penalties (three). These stats will be updated weekly.
4dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough
8dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf