Not all yards are created equal.
Sure, the hash marks are evenly spaced, but move far enough down the field and it feels like there’s more than three feet separating each yard line from the next.
A two-yard carry on first and 10 is vastly different from two yards on fourth and 1, and one-yard runs are almost always easier to come by at midfield than around the goal line.
Short-yardage plays are football at its most basic, brutal core. Thousands of pounds collide at the line of scrimmage, often with both teams being near-certain that the play is headed right up the gut.
The man-on-man battles at the line are never more important than in these situations, and the margin for error is minuscule. A lineman pushing forward a split-second late can mean the difference between a first down and a turnover, a touchdown and a field goal.
Teams that regularly capitalize on short-yardage plays gain a huge advantage, extending drives, wearing down defenses and rarely settling for short field goals.
For much of the previous four seasons, the Gators were one of those teams, marching through their schedule with a short-yardage trump card in their pocket.
But with quarterback Tim Tebow gone, Florida is still searching for its most reliable option as a replacement, and the void could be seen clearly in last weekend’s loss at No. 1 Alabama.
“We felt good going into the Alabama game, and now we don’t feel good again,” UF coach Urban Meyer said.
Meyer’s worries arose after watching the Gators cross the Crimson Tide’s 5-yard line three times and leave with just three points and two turnovers.
Despite running three plays from the 2-yard line and two from the 1, Florida couldn’t find the end zone. On its first drive, UF faced a second and goal from the 2 and turned to wildcat quarterback Trey Burton, who was fresh off a six-touchdown performance the week before.
But Burton’s two runs didn’t break through, and his fourth-down jump pass landed in enemy hands for an interception. When a third-quarter drive ended with a fumble from the 1-yard line, the Gators were left lamenting lost opportunities and looking for what let them down in the 31-6 loss.
“If you’re telling me a back has to get one yard, my question would be where his offensive line is,” left guard Carl Johnson said. “Shouldn’t they at least give him some kind of push? So it really shouldn’t matter. Even if we have [quarterback John Brantley] running it for a yard, we should be able to get one yard. We’re not asking for 13, we’re asking for one yard.”
But the Gators’ approach isn’t as straightforward as following the line’s lead.
This year Florida has run 16 plays when needing three or fewer yards to convert a third or fourth down, passing eight times. Seven different players have touched the ball, and only half of those plays resulted in first downs.
That variety is a stark departure from the tried-and-true method the Gators had relied on since 2006.
From his first carry as a freshman, it was clear Tebow would be a valuable asset.
That touch, a 1-yard touchdown run against Southern Miss, charted the course for a dominant short-yardage rushing career.
Tebow’s number was called 23 times in short-yardage situations in 2006, and he delivered on 20 of them, converting his first 12 and scoring five touchdowns from inside the 3-yard line.
His production was so automatic that it was jarring when he failed.
Against Mississippi in 2008, Tebow converted two fourth-and-1 opportunities but came up short on his third try, a run for no gain up the middle that sealed the Rebels’ upset and left the Heisman Trophy winner in tears.
He wasn’t used to stalling at the line, and he didn’t make a habit of it. Last season, Tebow converted 33 of his 41 short-yardage carries into first downs or touchdowns, scoring 10 times.
This year, UF has had 10 plays from the 1- or 2-yard lines and scored on just four of them.
“Tim, he was a bigger guy, but he also — not saying the guys now don’t have determination — but Tim was always determined to get that one or two yards,” running back Jeff Demps said. “Not down-talking our guys — like I said, they have that determination too — but Tim’s was just a little bigger than those guys.”
Demps heads the Gators’ rushing attack, but at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds, he isn’t the ideal back for pounding runs inside.
At 215 pounds, redshirt senior Emmanuel Moody figured to be the best option heading into the season, but his results haven’t matched those hopes. A five-yard run on fourth and 3 against USF is Moody’s lone short-yardage success, as he fumbled on fourth down in the season opener and has been stopped for no gain twice.
Meyer said sophomore Mike Gillislee has supplanted Moody, but Gillislee hasn’t had a short-yardage carry since a two-yard score against Tennessee on Sept. 18.
“If you’re going to hand it off, it’s going to be to Gilly first, Moody second, and the issue also is the improved blocking of our tight end,” Meyer said. “We’ve got to improve that area. It’s easy to say, ‘Get under center and run this play,’ but if you have a tight end who’s really never played tight end, we’re really not efficient at that position.”
It’s up to quarterback-turned-tight-end Jordan Reed to fix that, and he could also get a chance to run it himself. Reed was the Gators’ wildcat quarterback before suffering a preseason hamstring injury that allowed Burton to assume the role.
Burton took the reigns with authority, scoring five times from inside the 12-yard line against Kentucky, but no one has emerged as the go-to option.
Several players were asked this week to choose a teammate they’d most trust to pick up a yard on fourth and 1, and none would single one out as the best.
When pressed on who he’d give the ball to in a similar situation on a video game, defensive tackle Omar Hunter came out with a new strategy.
“I’m going to sub myself in on offense,” said the 307-pound Hunter, who played some running back in high school. “I would love to do that.”
That would sit well with Johnson, who said he’s less concerned with who has the ball than how his line performs.
“If we can’t get a yard, that’s our fault,” Johnson said. “We have probably the biggest offensive line and one of the best in the country. Why can’t we get one yard? Of course I put that weight on our shoulders. As a leader, don’t you want it that way?”
Meyer isn’t willing to place the blame on the line, though, saying at some point his skill players have to just make a play.
“I don’t think the line played great, but it’s certainly not because they’re not getting a push,” Meyer said. “You can only push the amount of bodies you have. If there’s two extra bodies in there, then either the tailback’s got to run over someone or you’ve got to throw the ball and make someone miss down there.”