Florida Missouri Football

Florida defensive back Jalen Tabor, left, celebrates with teammates after he returned an interception for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Missouri, on Oct. 10 2015, in Columbia, Missouri.

The signs are present on the field.

On third down, UF assistants jump up and down, holding posters with dollar signs high into the air as they work to pump up the crowd.

To the Gators, third down is money down, the time for them to prove their worth.

It’s a chance for the defense to stop opponents dead in their tracks.

Third-down efficiency can make or break a team, and that one down can be the difference between a touchdown, a field goal or a punt.

Through six games this season, the Gators have made opposing offenses uncomfortable on third down — regardless of the score, distance or play formation they go up against.

"They play the game fast," UF coach Jim McElwain said of his defense. "They’re definitely one heck of a unit."

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In Florida’s 21-3 road win against Missouri on Saturday, the Gators stopped the Tigers on 13 consecutive third-down attempts, with Missouri’s lone third-down conversion coming on its second-to-last play of the game, a 12-yard run by Chase Abbington with less than a minute to play.

"We got off the field," McElwain said. "That’s huge."

So far this year, the Gators’ defense has been getting off the field on a regular basis.

At the midway point of the regular season, Florida is allowing opponents to convert just 31.9 percent of their third-down attempts, almost seven percentage points lower than the 38.7 percent conversion rate they allowed in 2014.

In conference play, that conversion rate dips to 30.6 percent. In 2014, Southeastern Conference teams moved the chains on 43 percent of their third-down attempts against UF.

Florida’s third-down success this season, in part, can be attributed to its ability to stymie opponents on first and second downs.

Out of 94 third-down attempts the defense has faced this season, opponents have faced third-and-long — a third down with at least 7 yards to go — 50 times, moving the chains just 11 times (22 percent). Conversely, Florida has allowed offenses into third and short scenarios — needing 3 yards or less to pick up a new set of downs — just 19 times.

On average, opposing offenses are about 7.9 yards away from the first-down marker when third down rolls around.

And with the Gators giving up a mere 3.8 yards on the money down, the special teams are usually trotting out one play later.

"(We) just worry about winning that play, whatever that play is," McElwain said earlier this season. "Go do the best you can that singular event."

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With Missouri trailing Florida 14-3 midway through the third quarter on Saturday, freshman quarterback Drew Lock was eyeing his chance to make a big play.

The Tigers had gone three-and-out on their last four drives, and their offense became stagnant after making a field goal on their opening drive.

Facing a third and 10 from his own 36 and needing some sort of spark, Lock dropped back, looked to his left and fired a dart to receiver Jason Reese.

But UF cornerback Jalen Tabor was locked in on the play, intercepting the pass and returning it 40 yards for a touchdown, his second of the season.

"Coach Mac preaches situational football," the sophomore said. "The game of football is based on all situations. You see on third down, the money down, that’s the down we got to get off the field."

And Florida has done so by creating chaos and big plays on its most important down.

Ten of Florida’s 21 sacks and three of its seven interceptions — including both of Tabor’s pick-sixes — have come on third downs.

Quarterbacks are completing just 46.9 percent of their third-down passes against Florida’s secondary and averaging just 4.7 yards per pass.

"We’ve got to make sure we make teams uncomfortable on third down," linebacker Jarrad Davis said.

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With six games under its belt, Florida’s defense has shown it has what it takes to win.

It steps up when needed and has no problem creating scoring opportunities of its own.

"Sometimes they lose focus on the prize, the prize being what we do on Saturdays, and I haven’t seen that lately," McElwain said.

The road doesn’t get any easier, with the Gators traveling to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this weekend for a top-10 matchup against LSU.

But McElwain has seen enough from his defense.

When the money down comes up, he knows they’re ready to play.

"They’re tuned in, they’re locked in, they’re challenging each other, they’re challenging the offense," he said. "It’s fun to watch."

 Follow Jordan McPherson on Twitter @J_McPherson1126