Gators show LSU how to play tough in SEC win
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After LSU pushed his team around on its way to the Southeastern Conference championship last season, Florida coach Will Muschamp took an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach to this season.
So far, so good, as the 10th-ranked Gators beat the fourth-ranked Tigers (14-6) at their own game Saturday in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, signaling that they may be on their way to rejoining the Southeastern Conference elite.
Muschamp’s emphasis in the offseason and preseason on making the Gators more physical on both lines of scrimmage — like the Tigers have been — paid off with a punishing running game and a stifling defense.
The loss ended the nation’s longest regular-season winning streak at 18 games, which included a 41-11 victory against Florida last season.
“You saw two very physical teams go at it on both lines of scrimmage and you could see the improvements that we have made,” said Muschamp, who was an LSU assistant from 2001-04, spending the last three as defensive coordinator.
“We have a very strong, physical football team. I think we are a stronger team and have more endurance.
“The things that we struggled with last year (when Florida was 7-6) have been pounded into (the players’) heads, and as a competitor you take that personally and we have a competitive bunch. When you take something personally you get pretty good results, and so far we have.”
The Gators are 5-0 and 3-0 in the SEC. The Tigers (5-1 and 1-1 in the SEC after losing to an East Division team for the first time in three seasons) meet another East Division power (No. 6 South Carolina) next Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
Florida’s defense one-upped an LSU defense that was outstanding in the first half, but wilted in the heat and humidity and burden of playing 38 second-half snaps while the Tigers ran just 23 plays.
“They were definitely more physical than last year,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said.
Gators running back Mike Gillislee rushed 34 times for 146 yards and scored both of the games touchdowns on a 12-yard runs in the third and fourth quarters.
“We felt like the running game was there,” Muschamp said. “We just had to be patient with it.”
Florida ran for 176 yards and kept the ball on the ground for its final 25 plays to finish off a 14-0 second half.
“They had a concerted effort to run the football today,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Certainly it made a difference.”
The Tigers had one first down rushing among their eight first downs and averaged 1.7 yards per rush. They converted 1-of-13 third downs.
LSU was clinging to a 6-0 lead midway through the third quarter before Florida started the putting the ball in Gillislee’s hands with more regularity.
He gained 29 of the 85 yards on the first touchdown drive, which finished with him sprinting untouched into the end zone.
The Tigers made their biggest play of the game on their next possession. On third-and-7 Zach Mettenberger faced a strong pass rush, which has become the norm, and launched a long pass up the right sideline. Odell Beckham Jr. ran under the ball and caught it before safety Matt Elam wrestled him to the ground and pulled the ball loose. De’Ante Saunders picked up the ball for the Gators, but the officials ruled that Beckham was on the ground at the Florida 23 before the ball came loose.
The officials reviewed the play and saw that Elam had stripped the ball before Beckham hit the ground and awarded the ball to Florida. The weary LSU defense returned to the field just three plays after the 85-yard drive, and the Gators offense flexed its muscles again, marching 77 yards on 11 running plays and one personal foul penalty on LSU linebacker Luke Muncie.
Turnovers and penalties were major issues for LSU as they have been on a weekly basis. The Tigers were penalized eight times for 83 yards and turned the ball over three times, including Mettenberger’s third interception of the season and sixth turnover in as many games.
LSU’s best drive of the first half came on the first possession of the game.
Mettenberger had completions of 20 yards to Spencer Ware and 13 yards to Nic Jacobs, and Kenny Hilliard’s 13-yard run led to Drew Alleman’s 31-yard field goal.
Florida got its first scoring opportunity when LSU’s first possession of the second quarter ended with Mettenberger throwing an interception to Jaylen Watkins.
That gave the Gators the ball at the Tigers 38, but LSU’s defense pushed Florida backward. After Gillislee rushed for 5 yards, Kevin Minter — who had 20 tackles (17 solo), two sacks and a forced fumble — sacked Jeff Driskil for losses of 7 and 9 yards, forcing a punt from the Tigers 49.
The Gators put together their best drive of the half on their next possession, using Driskel’s 14-yard screen pass to Jordan Reed and Driskil runs of 17 and 10 yards to reach the LSU 22. Driskel threw a 2-yard completion to Frankie Hammond Jr., who fumbled when hit by Minter. Kwon Alexander recovered for the Tigers and ran 15 yards to the LSU 40.
Florida’s next possession also ended with a fumble, and it provided the best scoring opportunity of the half.
Bennie Logan sacked Driskil, knocking the ball loose, and Mingo recovered for the Tigers at the Gators 7.
Ware rushed for 3 yards, then Mettenberger threw the ball away when he couldn’t find an open receiver. LSU called a timeout to choose its third-down play, then called another timeout when it appeared it wouldn’t be able to get the play off in the time.
The Tigers lined up with seldom-used running back/wide receiver Terrence Magee as the only back behind Mettenberger.
Magee took the ball from Mettenberger and looked to make a jump pass to Jacobs, but he was covered. Magee kept the ball and was tackled for no gain.
Alleman’s 21-yard field goal gave LSU a 6-0 halftime lead, but ultimately the offense’s ineffectiveness left the defense on the field way too much.
For a change, the Tigers were on the wrong end of that equation.
“We worked super hard during the week to come out and play two dominant halves,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “Sadly, our stamina couldn’t hold up.”