Squeezing the orange

The unbeaten Gators have improved with a plus-7 turnover ratio

Updated: October 17, 2012, 7:03 PM ET
By Michael DiRocco | GatorNation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The passing offense is dead last in the Southeastern Conference.

They've only thrown four touchdown passes in six games.

They're ninth in scoring.

They've given up the second-most sacks in the league and are converting less than 40 percent on third down.

[+] EnlargeJaylen Watkins
Kim Klement/US PresswireFlorida cornerback Jaylen Watkins leads the team with two interceptions.
Yet Florida is undefeated (6-0) and sits at No. 2 in the BCS standings and No. 3 in the Associated Press poll. Why?

The biggest reason: the Gators are running for 233 yards per game. But running a close second is the Gators are much better at taking care of the ball and forcing turnovers than they have been the past two seasons. UF is plus-7 and has turned the ball over only four times.

"We've tried to emphasize it everywhere I've been," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "We certainly didn't do a good job last year. We're doing a little better job this year. We've just got to continue to emphasize it. We talk about it every day, with the importance of ball security offensively and getting the ball out on defense."

A big part of the Gators' struggles the past two seasons are due to turnovers. In 2010, the Gators were plus-14 in their eight victories and minus-12 in their five losses. Last season, UF was even in its seven victories and minus-12 in its five losses.

Florida forced only 14 turnovers in 2011, the fewest in a single season since the school began keeping fumble stats in 1950. The Gators have already forced 11 this season, including seven interceptions, one less than they had all of last season.

The players say the reasons for the increased production are a better understanding of the defense and -- believe it or not -- the players are trying harder.

"We practice every day on creating turnovers," DT Omar Hunter said. "When a guy's got somebody wrapped up, we practice another guy coming in trying to rip the ball out. It's just what we do in practice. It really is. It's just carrying over to the game."

But the players did that last season, too, and it didn't work. They did the same drills and heard the same speeches. So why is it working this season?

"Guys are trying extra hard, I guess," Hunter said.

That drew a laugh out of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

"I wish it was [because the players are trying harder]," he said. "I would have told them to try harder earlier."

However, he believes more accountability among the players has helped.

"In terms of takeaways, I do think you get what you emphasize," Quinn said. "Although we emphasized it last year, maybe the players to each other are emphasizing it more. As you guys know, when another teammate's telling you and reminding you, maybe that's a little different voice telling you than the coach. That may have had something to do with it as well, like 'Hey, you missed an opportunity there.' When it comes from a player or another teammate, I think that adds value, too. I'm not going to let my guy next to me down. If he says we've got to get it, we do it."

The players are also more familiar with the defense now that they're in their second season under Quinn. They're not having to think as much about what they're supposed to do. They're just doing it.

"The interception against Kentucky, I probably wouldn't have made last year and a couple tackles that I got a jump on I probably wouldn't have made last year," CB Jaylen Watkins said. "Just because I didn't have the knowledge of the game. Watching film and being a self-evaluator and saying I could have done this better. I think all of us have done that this year, so that's why everybody is making plays."

Just as important as getting more takeaways is the fact that the Gators aren't giving the ball up much. RB Omarius Hines lost a fumble against Bowling Green, Driskel threw his only interception of the season against Kentucky, and Driskel and WR Frankie Hammond lost fumbles against LSU. Only one of those turnovers -- Hines' fumble -- came in the second half. That's just four turnovers in six games, which is tied with Mississippi State for the fewest in the SEC. By contrast, Auburn has turned the ball over a league-high 19 times.

Plus, it helps that the Gators have only thrown the ball 117 times -- by far the fewest pass attempts by any team in the league. The less time the ball's in the air, the less of a chance of an interception.

"Coach Muschamp, he's always saying that if we don't turn over the ball, we'll most likely win the game," G Jon Halapio said. "I don't think we did a good job last year of ball security and I guess coaching it. I know this year, it's really emphasized in practice -- [hold the ball] high and tight, protect the ball and all that."

It's working. And it's a big reason why the Gators are winning.

Mike DiRocco | email

ESPN Jacksonville Jaguars reporter