LSU defense leads way in win over Florida

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Florida running back Mack Brown (33) is stopped by LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson (9) and LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter (94) as linebacker Lamin Barrow (18) comes in to help. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Florida running back Mack Brown (33) is stopped by LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson (9) and LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter (94) as linebacker Lamin Barrow (18) comes in to help.

As it turns out, LSU can play some pretty good defense, too.

The first half of the season, the Tigers’ record-setting offense overshadowed their inconsistent defense. The previous two weeks, the defense gave up 69 points in six quarters before holding Mississippi State to three points in the second half last week.

Then on Saturday afternoon, No. 17 Florida arrived in Tiger Stadium with the top-ranked defense in the Southeastern Conference, a distinction LSU is used to competing for.

But the Gators defense — and even the Tigers offense — was overshadowed by No. 10 LSU’s defense in its 17-6 victory.

“The defense did a phenomenal job,” LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. “There was fire in a lot of those guys’ eyes. They took it upon themselves to be that dominant defense again, and they were. I think we’ll be seeing that for the rest of the year.”

Saturday’s game was a reversal of last year’s matchup in which Florida’s defense and running game keyed its 14-6 victory in Gainesville, Fla. A postgame question about the role reversal drew the ire of Tigers coach Les Miles when it was suggested Florida was “more of the hammer” last season.

“Two very quality teams take field and compete like a son of a bitch for victory,” Miles said. “It’s not a hammer-and-nail relationship. It’s an opportunity for opponents to be equal. You respect the opponent. He’s not the hammer or the nail.

“I resent that, that suddenly we were the nail. I mean, honest to peas, I felt differently than the nail, so you know.”

LSU, which plays at Ole Miss next Saturday, is 6-1 and 3-1 in the SEC. Florida falls to 4-2 and 3-1.

“We’re getting off blocks, we’re tackling line-of-scrimmage plays, we’re getting in predictable third-down situations and we’re rushing the passer,” Miles said.

“When that happens, you’re not going to score a lot of points against us.”

Florida failed to score a touchdown against LSU for the first time since 1979 as it managed just 240 total yards and averaged 2.8 yards per rush.

“There were too many negative plays that put us behind in the down and distance,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “And that’s very difficult to overcome against a good pass-rushing team.”

The Tigers had four sacks among their eight tackles for loss after averaging 1.7 sacks and 4.3 tackles for loss in the first six games.

“Everyone is saying how young we are,” said end Jermauria Rasco, one of eight first-year starters on the defense. “We’re not young; we are all just getting comfortable with each other and starting to play LSU football. We just wanted to prove to ourselves that we could do the things that we’re coached to do.”

Several players said defensive coordinator John Chavis got their attention with an emotional plea to play defense at a level the Tigers have been known for.

“He said it was time as a unit for us to step up and do what we do best around here, and that’s play tackle football,” defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said.

LSU, which was averaging 45.5 points and set a school record with more than 400 yards of offense in each of the first six games, struggled against a Florida defense and held just a 14-3 lead after a scoreless third quarter.

Florida drove to first-and-goal at the 7, but Lamin Barrow and Rasco dropped Kelvin Taylor for a 2-yard loss, and Derrick Raymond and Danielle Hunter dropped Solomon Patton for a 1-yard loss. On third down, Rasco’s pass rush forced Tyler Murphy to throw the ball away, and the Gators settled for a field goal with 12:11 left.

“Murphy just had too many guys in his face,” Muschamp said.

After the Tigers drove to Colby Delahoussaye’s 31-yard field goal and an 11-point lead midway through the fourth, the Gators still had time to catch up. After converting a fourth down on a pass from punt formation, they reached a first down at the LSU 20. After two incompletions and a false start, Murphy was sacked by Jalen Mills, then by Kendell Beckwith to give the ball back to the Tigers.

“They did a good job of applying pressure to us,” Murphy said. “It’s definitely frustrating when you have a guy downfield and you can’t get to him.”

LSU punted on the game’s first possession — just its second first-quarter punt of the season. The Gators immediately drove to points — as Georgia and State did in scoring touchdowns on their first possessions the previous two weeks — but needed 14 plays to navigate 60 yards and settled for a field goal.

Florida’s first eight rushes on the drive yielded 35 yards but, on third-and-3, Tashawn Bower and Christian LaCouture stopped Mack Brown a yard short of a first down.

“There was a point in time that they were moving the ball with the rush,” Miles said. “And we just said, ‘No, they’re not doing that anymore.’ ”

Florida’s next five possessions ended with punts until its fourth-quarter field goal. Its longest running play gained 14 yards, its longest pass play gained 20 and it averaged 3.5 yards per play.

The near elimination of big plays was key after the 44-41 loss at Georgia and the 23-point first half in the 59-26 victory at Mississippi State.

“Those kids never gave in,” Chavis said. “They kept fighting and preparing. They made a statement for 60 minutes.”

Barrow had a career-high 13 tackles, and safety Craig Loston, returning after a one-game absence due to a groin injury, tied his career-high with nine tackles.

“Our defense is maturing,” Miles said. “I think our secondary is coming together.”

Zach Mettenberger, who had thrown for more than 300 yards each of the past two games, only passed 17 times, completing nine for 152 yards with no touchdowns.

“Zach didn’t have his best game,” Miles said, “but it wasn’t bad either.”

Mettenberger and the passing game didn’t need to do much. Jeremy Hill rushed for 121 yards on 19 carries, and fullback J.C. Copeland and reserve quarterback Anthony Jennings each had 1-yard touchdown runs against a defense yielding an average of 65 rushing yards.

Miles said LSU, which is bowl eligible for the 14th consecutive season, was the better team on offense, special teams and defense, the last of which hasn’t always been the case even in victory this season.

“If that recipe continues to hold up,” he said, “we’ll be awfully good.”