LSU senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger stared down a daunting task in the heart of the second quarter as his offense drove to the Florida 47-yard line.
The nation’s second-ranked defense was prepared to halt a Tigers drive that began on LSU’s own 37, as Florida had the home squad backed up on third-and-17.
Mettenberger proceeded to fire a 22-yard strike to junior receiver Odell Beckham Jr., continuing a drive that eventually led to seven points.
“They just had the perfect play for the perfect coverage,” Gators junior cornerback Cody Riggs said. “They ran a great play and got somebody open across the middle. We’ve got to make the tackle.”
It was the same uncharacteristic story for the Gators’ defense on third down for the first half of Saturday’s 17-6 loss to the Tigers.
The afternoon game in Tiger Stadium matched up as a battle of goliaths with regards to third down conversion percentage.
Coming into Saturday’s game, Florida’s defense ranked first in the Southeastern Conference and second in the nation at stopping opponents on third down. LSU had the top-ranked third-down offense in the SEC and the third-best in the country.
The Gators had held opponents to a 23 percent success rate on third downs in the five games leading up to Saturday, while the Tigers successfully converted on 58 percent of their third-down chances.
Something had to give, and by halftime, Florida needed to develop a different game plan to stop an efficient LSU offense.
When the teams entered the locker room after the end of the second quarter, LSU had converted four of five third-down attempts, two of which continued drives that ended in touchdowns for the Tigers.
“In the first half, we weren’t lined up, and we weren’t urgent. And that’s not acceptable,” Riggs said. “In the second half, we were getting lined up better. I give (LSU) credit, they came out aggressive.”
The poor performance proved to be a new challenge for a usually stout Gators’ defense.
In the Gators’ first five games of the season, Florida did not allow any opponent to convert more than 38 percent of its third-down opportunities.
LSU finished converting five of nine chances, or a 56 percent success rate.
Florida junior defensive lineman Damien Jacobs said LSU’s success was the result of poor execution by the Gators.
“It was nothing we haven’t seen,” Jacobs said. “We’ve seen this on film all week, and we knew it was coming. We just failed to make the plays we were supposed to make.”
LSU used a variety of looks to keep the Gators defense off-balance in the first half. On third-and-5 at the LSU 35 in the second quarter, the Tigers motioned junior running back Terrence Magee out wide before the snap.
One 17-yard completion later, the Tigers continued their march to the end zone.
“They got movement up front,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “Our guys just didn’t get off blocks. Our guys knew that coming in, but we didn’t do that enough (Saturday night).”
Florida’s defense had enough trouble with the offensive weapons LSU brought to the field, but the addition of two key third-down penalties made it worse for the Gators.
Two Florida pass interference penalties extended LSU drives, once on third-and-6 in the Gators’ red zone, and another on third-and-3 at the LSU 47.
Both resulted in LSU rushing touchdowns: one by senior fullback J.C. Copeland and another by freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Riggs, who committed one of the two pass-interference penalties.
“Third down is our money down, and that’s what we take pride in. They kept the ball moving.”
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