GAINESVILLE, Fla. — No. 17 Florida expects something closer to a shutout than a shootout against No. 10 LSU.
All week the Gators have praised Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger and arguably the nation’s top receiving tandem, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. But defensive players raised eyebrows, shook heads and pretty much scoffed at the notion of LSU dropping half a hundred on them Saturday.
“We’re not going to allow ourselves to let that happen,” Florida defensive tackle Darious Cummings said.
The Tigers (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) are averaging 45 points and 489 yards per game. Florida (4-1, 3-0) hasn’t given up 21 points in any of its past 13 league games.
How one of the SEC’s top offenses fares against the league’s stingiest defense likely will determine the outcome.
“I don’t think anybody in the country is playing better defense than we are,” Cummings said.
“We haven’t even reached our max yet, so I feel we just have that relentless effort and we’re not taking no for an answer. We get challenged week in and week out to be the best.”
LSU’s offensive improvements are obvious.
Mettenberger, who threw for 158 yards and was sacked four times in a 14-6 loss at Florida a year ago, looks more comfortable and confident in his second season as the starter. The senior has thrown for 1,738 yards and 15 touchdowns, the most through the first six games in school history.
“He’s more accurate with the ball,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “I think he’s got a better understanding in the passing game. Everybody matures as different ages. I know we’re all in an instant-coffee society, where we want it right now, and that’s not always the way it is. Sometimes that happens with players. From a maturity standpoint, he’s playing at an extremely high level.”
It certainly helps to have Beckham and Landry, who have the most receptions and yards of any duo in college football. Beckham has caught 35 passes for 686 yards and six touchdowns. Landry has 42 receptions for 616 yards and seven scores.
But if anyone can slow down Beckham and Landry, it’s Florida.The Gators have one of the deepest secondaries in the country, featuring cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy, Vernon Hargreaves III and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy had a sack and a forced fumble and returned an interception for a fumble in last week’s 30-10 win against Arkansas. Hargreaves, a freshman, leads the team with three picks. And Roberson (knee) should make the unit better, assuming he returns after missing the past three games.
“Florida has a combination of both athleticism and great schemes,” Mettenberger said. “We will have our opportunities to be man-on-man with the defense, and hopefully we can score more times than not against them.”
All of Florida’s talent on the back end allows Muschamp to be creative up front. And defensive linemen Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell have gotten to the quarterback all season.
“That’s kind of been our identity — coming after the quarterback, getting after him, getting hits on the quarterback, pressuring the quarterback, making him make bad decisions,” Powell said. “That’s kind of like what we do. That’s what we want to do. We want to play physical and force our will on people.”
It has worked for 13 consecutive SEC games. The last team to gouge the Gators was LSU, which beat Florida 41-11 in Baton Rouge in 2011.
Not surprisingly, the Gators haven’t forgotten.
“It was definitely a low point in most of our careers here,” senior defensive back Jaylen Watkins said. “It was definitely a bad taste in our mouth, but that’s the game of football. We get a chance to go back and try to redeem ourselves, and we’re looking forward to it.”