Florida vs. LSU, Rapid Recap: Gators stumble to a Death Valley defeat

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Florida's inability to do much of anything on offense or stop LSU's running game left the Gators without answers on Saturday in Baton Rouge.

Florida fell to LSU, 17-6, on Saturday. You can relive the game through our Game Thread, if you're a masochist. The Rapid Recap is our comprehensive first look before a second full viewing of each Gators game. It will usually run within 24 hours of the game's end, and we're going to try to publish it at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings — so it can be used as a companion to Sun Sports' "Breakfast With the Gators" broadcast of the replay of Florida's Saturday game.

For once, Florida didn't have the answers to relatively simple questions on defense. For the first time, Tyler Murphy looked like a first-time starter for an entire game. For the first time since the beginning of the 2012 season, Florida looked outclassed on both lines of scrimmage.

And for the second time this year, Florida lost a tough game on the road.

How Florida Lost

LSU's second quarter woes evaporate

On this week's edition of the Geaux Show, And The Valley Shook's LSU podcast, the hosts spent a fair bit of time talking about LSU's woes in the second quarter this year. And they had good reason to: LSU had played its opponents, mostly inferior ones, to an absolutely even 58-58 count in the second quarter coming into Saturday's game.

Then the Tigers blanked Florida in the second period by a 14-0 count, with a couple of long, sledgehammering drives that drained the Gators' defense and put Florida's offense in a hole too deep for it to emerge from.

And, remember, it could have been worse: A third LSU drive deep into Florida territory ended just outside the red zone when Zach Mettenberger inexplicably decided to drop the football, and Leon Orr fell on it.

Outstanding

Florida kept fighting its losing battles

I think the story of this game was a stronger, deeper team leaning on a team that it found it could push over whenever it wanted. That was the story of Florida's win over LSU last year, which makes the script surprising, but the Gators just couldn't get consistent protection from their offensive line or consistent penetration from their defensive line.

And yet Florida held the ball for quite some time, and did manage to string together drives, especially in the second half, when quitting would have been a far easier option, and when Florida was reduced to playing its backup quarterback and its second- and third-string running backs. Will Muschamp smiled at his players before the fourth quarter that would produce just a field goal for each side, and Florida scrapped for virtually all of the yards on its final few drives.

Nothing came easy for these Gators today, nor will it for much of the rest of their year, but they did not despair and did not wilt when the ease of the last few games on their schedule gave way to a heavyweight bout against a foe capable of landing body blows. You don't win fights by standing and trading with better teams — and LSU is better than Florida — but you can earn respect.

Encouraging

Kelvin Taylor emerges

It took a game-ending injury to Matt Jones and a ding to Mack Brown for Kelvin Taylor's redshirt to finally, fully meet the flames, but what Taylor did by gaining 52 yards on 10 carries for Florida, most of that yardage coming in the second half, will make many, many fans wonder why Taylor wasn't the man getting handoffs until Saturday.

After a couple of fruitless carries in the first quarter, Taylor picked through LSU's line with excellent vision and good elusiveness late, and generally looked better than both Jones and Brown at the most basic task presented to running backs: Finding space and running through it. Jones has been tentative all season, isn't quick at the handoff, and has made many bad decisions on where to take the ball; Brown is not great at picking holes, either. Taylor, scion of one of the greatest Florida running backs ever, was advertised as a natural running back, and has been more or less as advertised when asked to run the ball this year.

We don't know how serious Jones's injury is, or whether he'll have to miss more games, but I think Taylor did enough against LSU to get into the mix for the lion's share of the carries from here on out, and with redshirting him no longer a possibility, there's no good reason not to use him, even if only as a runner.

This is what a bad day for this defense looks like

Florida's defense had its worst day of the year on Saturday ... and allowed 327 yards. (Entering Saturday, only 18 defenses in the country were giving up fewer than 327 yards per game.) But Florida allowed those yards on the ground, mostly, as Jeremy Hill got 121 yards on 19 carries, none going for a loss and just one going for no yardage — it finally fully felt the impact of losing Dominique Easley against the Tigers, after struggling at times to stop the run against Kentucky and Arkansas, as LSU held the point of attack and got hats on hats all over the field.

Florida did not allow Mettenberger, who completed just nine passes on 17 attempts yards, any consistency, but though the Gators allowed no receptions of more than 30 yards, the long ones — a 22-yarder to Odell Beckham Jr. on third and 17, a 17-yarder to Terrence Magee on third and five — were back-breakers. (That 30-yarder was a pass Hill took for most of the yardage it gained.)

It nearly stopped LSU at the goal line on the Tigers' first deep drive of the game — and might have, if refs had spotted and/or called an obvious false start, or thrown a flag on a play that featured a helmetless Damien Jacobs at the bottom of a pile. But it also gave up two touchdowns in goal-to-go series.

This was the worst day of the year so far for Florida's defense  — and it held LSU to 17 points, though the Tigers certainly helped keep the score down, too. That LSU offense might be the best one Florida sees all year  — and it still managed just 17 points on Florida's defense at home.

Defense is just not Florida's problem, not if we're being honest.

Florida's first drive

Sure, the Gators had to settle for a field goal — and a long one — after driving 60 yards over 14 plays on their first offensive possession. But that possession chewed up 7:27 of clock, and looked like it was a prelude to another grind-it-out Florida win. That Florida couldn't replicate it, or play defense quite well enough to give the offense a reason to try to replicate it, doesn't change the fact that it was another very good opening drive.

Tyler Murphy did not melt down

Murphy played his worst game yet, and was not nearly as good as he was against the dregs of the SEC that he feasted on for three weeks. He also didn't really panic, and didn't make any mistakes that led to points for LSU, though some of his throws were much riskier than was necessary, and much of his scrambling was to no avail. This was no better than a gentleman's C, and that wasn't good enough to win today, but it wasn't worse than a C, either.

Frankie Velez says relax?

Florida brought a walk-on from Trinity Catholic in Ocala to Baton Rouge, not Brad Phillips, and entrusted him with two field goal tries in Tiger Stadium over the highly-regarded Austin Hardin. Velez nailed both of those field goals, from 44 and 27 yards, with no real issue.

He'll have to do it in another game for me to believe he's the answer to Florida's kicking woes, and he'll have to nail a 50-yarder before it's actually worth the characters to mention him in the same breath with Caleb Sturgis, but Velez was an unquestioned bright spot at a position that had been a dark mark for Florida this year.

Florida never doesn't have a prayer

This was Florida's most lopsided loss since 2011 — and it was an 11-point loss that could have been an eight-point loss had the Gators opted to play for a field goal late. Florida looked like it was playing offense while getting novocaine-free dental work done for most of the day, but didn't make any mistakes to kneecap its defense. That defense put on its worst performance of this year, and kept Florida within (theoretical) striking range.

That all feels a little hollow, given how dismal Florida's offensive performance really was, and how eight points still feels like three possessions when the other team has a pass rush, but there's something to be said for not being blown out.

Both Good and Bad

LSU's actually really good

I fretted about the relative confidence of the Florida fan base in the Gators' chances to win at LSU this week, because I think many of those fans were overrating Florida after three wins over bad SEC teams, and underrating LSU, and I think the outcome of this game proved my worries more or less right.

But this was a good measuring stick for Florida, because LSU is probably a top-10 team in the country — certainly, it played like one &mdash. And there's really no shame in losing to a top-10 team in the country on the road with a backup quarterback, and a defense missing its best player, and injuries that knocked out other players, and so on. We should know — I think it's clear — that Florida's hopes of making noise on the national level this year depend on winning close games against better teams, not being dominant. This was always going to be sort of a rebuilding year, with most of Florida's defense and its most reliable provider of offense departing from the 2012 Gators, but this loss, in which few high-variance things happened, and LSU was solidly ahead throughout, puts that in sharp relief.

Florida still controls its own destiny

Then again, the tantalizing truth is that Florida can win out against SEC foes and make it to Atlanta with no help. And with Georgia falling to a Missouri team that exchanged its starting quarterback's health for a victory at Sanford Stadium, the East looks like it could fall to any of the four teams with three SEC wins in the division — Florida, Georgia, Missouri, or South Carolina — with a few breaks.

Of course, of the four teams, Florida has by far the hardest road — at Missouri, Georgia at a neutral site, at South Carolina — and is arguably as diminished by injury as Georgia and Missouri are. (While Georgia could get some of its players healthy by the World's Largest Outdoor Convention of M.A.S.H. Units, Florida ain't getting the relief it really needs.) That hope is fun to cling to, but don't let it be the reason you think Florida will be able to navigate a difficult road to the SEC Championship Game.

Needs Improvement

Playing the run

Florida's issues with defending the run right now have a lot to do with how much of a step down in talent Florida's defense had to deal with from 2012 to 2013. Without Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley to command double teams and get penetration, Florida's line is forced to hold its ground more than it forces opposing offenses to do it; without Lerentee McCray to chase down runners in space, Florida is forced to make tackles while being pushed backward; without Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins to get to the ball at the second level, runs that would've gone for three yards go for eight.

Florida managed pretty well without all those NFL-caliber players against Kentucky and Arkansas, but, as mentioned above, there were cracks. LSU, and especially Jeremy Hill, turned them into fissures, repeatedly pounding on Florida's line up front: Hill ended up gaining more than six yards a pop on the ground, and LSU's 175 rushing yards were the most by a Florida opponent since Furman's funky triple option racked up 233 in 2011.

I think Hill's a special running back, and has an NFL future, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of LSU's linemen do, too, but Florida got pushed around, and has two or three more very good offensive lines on the docket. To avoid losses, the Gators are going to need to shore up their run defense, one way or another.

Defending without penalties

The only Florida corner who really got burned on the day was Loucheiz Purifoy, who looked bad — slow enough out of breaks to give up a few big plays — one week after looking like a game-changer. But Marcus Roberson got flagged for pass interference on a third down.

On the same drive, Darious Cummings gave LSU a first down with an offsides penalty. And those came after two penalties gave LSU a first down at the Florida 11 and a goal-to-go series on an incomplete third-down pass on the first LSU touchdown drive.

Is it stunning that those drives also produced LSU's only touchdowns of the day? No. Florida has been aiding offenses that can't really crack its defense by getting flagged all year.

Be aggressive

The Gators' insistence on taking what the defense gives them is a double-edged sword, and it cut the Florida offense against LSU. Murphy's inability to find receivers — though our man on the scene, GatorJustin, reports that they were running free — left Florida trying for longer, more arduous drives than nearly any other team attempts, throwing only short passes and getting only short runs.

Some of the problems with throwing deep have to do with how porous Florida's offensive line actually is, and not having Jones, the only good pass blocker in Florida's running back corps, really hampers Florida's ability to deal with rushers, especially ones who come up the middle. But not being able to take the top off the defense, or make defenses respect a passing game's chances of throwing deep, makes every drive a slog. And there are games in which Florida won't win those slogs. This was one of them.

Murphy's play

Even if you were really impressed by Tyler Murphy's first three games and/or first two starts, you probably came away from this one with a better understanding of why he was Florida's backup quarterback. And his bad day was really mostly about his arm: Murphy was, other than on that very first drive, erratic, and threw passes off target and off LSU defenders far more often than is ideal. His intermediate to deep passing was almost nonexistent: Murphy completed just three passes of more than 10 yards, and they came on Florida's first drive and its last drive; two of those passes went to Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood, who looked fine enough in brief action to merit more snaps, but, on the broadcast, Murphy's receivers did him few favors.

Murphy was less able to escape pressure coming from up front than he was the pressure from the edge — LSU's got better defensive tackles than Florida will see for the rest of the year, though — and made another awfully risky throw while in the grasp that worked out. But while Murphy's got a little Johnny Manziel in his game, watching Manziel pick apart Ole Miss on Saturday night reminded me how singular Texas A&M's brilliant signal-caller actually is, with the arm strength and accuracy to make decisions in a flash that usually work, and the speed and instincts to do the right thing on the ground on nearly every scramble.

Murphy is not Manziel, and he's not A.J. McCarron, whose arm strength and accuracy also trump Murphy's, but he had been and done enough as a mobile game manager for Florida's offense against overmatched foes, when his line and receivers gave him more than they did on Saturday. This was, I fear, a taste of what it'll be like against teams that can pressure Murphy and stay disciplined in coverage when he scrambles — and a few of those remain for Florida to play in 2013.

Kyle Christy's mysterious 2013 play

There's no good way to say this about Christy, a player I came to really like last year: His 2013 is as disappointing as his 2012 was impressive. He hasn't gotten off a great punt all year, and put two touchbacks in the end zone when Florida really needed to bury LSU. He was outclassed on this day by a (fantastic) Murphy pooch punt, and made his best play on a fake that LSU seemed sort of indifferent to defending.

I don't know what's wrong; I don't know what the solution is. All I know is that Christy's been mediocre at best.

Embarrassing

The offensive line regresses

On one of the plays on Florida's last drive, I tried to count to three after the snap, to see how much time Murphy was getting in the pocket. And when I didn't even get there before pressure arrived, I realized I should have been doing that all day — though it would have really depressed me, given how Florida was under siege.

LSU's defensive line played a really good game against Florida, one year after I was pretty unimpressed with a more talented line. Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson were hard to move up front, and Danielle Hunter was massive on the end; the linemen were also so good at occupying Florida's front that blitzes got home time and again, rushing and roughing up Murphy.

But Florida's offensive line was as bad as LSU's front seven was good. Virtually every lineman struggled in pass protection, with Jon Halapio, playing with one good arm, being especially bad. There was little push up front on most running plays, leaving Florida's non-Taylor backs to push piles for two or three yards. The lack of protection forced Murphy to scramble often — he ended up with 10 carries, four of which were sacks; four of the actual rushes went for one or four yards — and ineffectively, and probably short-circuited Florida's deep passing game before it had a chance to affect the game.

This is a line that misses Chaz Green, and misses Xavier Nixon as a run blocker, and misses the healthy Halapio, and misses the numbers advantage its unbalanced formations could get in 2012. And while Florida's been able to get raw numbers that look fairly good in the running game, those yards come two by two far more often than they come five by five, and leave the Gators off schedule on many, many sets of downs. This line isn't winning battles, and it's losing wars because of it.

Loucheiz Purifoy and Cody Riggs remain targets in coverage

If I were an offensive coordinator attacking Florida's defense, I would a) run the ball up the middle repeatedly and make Florida try to stop it and b) use play-action passing to target Loucheiz Purifoy and Cody Riggs with sophisticated route-running. Purifoy's been bad at changing direction in 2013, and bad at putting hands on receivers in space; I'm not convinced that Riggs has had more than one good snap of coverage when matched up on a slot receiver. Those two players yielded most of what Florida's secondary yielded to LSU — Vernon Hargreaves III had great coverage on a better Jarvis Landry catch, even if he was definitely young boy'd; Marcus Roberson returned to his traditional pass interference play, but didn't give up much (anything?) else — and with how good most of Florida's secondary is, picking on the weaknesses is much smarter than trying to outplay the strengths.

But the frustrating thing with Riggs, a senior, and Purifoy, a junior, is that they really don't have excuses for being less than very good. Roberson's been hurt this year; Hargreaves is a true freshman; the safeties behind the corners — including Riggs, who's been far better as a safety than a corner — are mostly still getting their sea legs. And Florida needs at least one more slot corner, whether it's Riggs or someone else, because its linebackers cannot be trusted at all in coverage. (You saw Antonio Morrison's best effort on Saturday: It was not enough.) Maybe that means sliding Purifoy into the slot and making Roberson and Hargreaves the full-time guys on the outside. Maybe it means playing Jaylen Watkins at slot corner and turning over his safety spot to Jabari Gorman or Marcus Maye full-time.

But I've reached the point of no return with Riggs in coverage, and he's either going to get replaced there or prompt a lot of whining from me for the rest of the year.

Stray Observations

  • This game felt like a mirror image of last year's Florida-LSU game, nearly ended up with the score of that game and/or the score of last year's Florida-Georgia game, and reminded me very strongly of Florida's disastrous trip to LSU in 2011, especially in how Murphy's play reminded me of Jacoby Brissett. Bad vibes abounded.
  • Florida's ability to control the first and third quarters despite not really being great on offense or defense was impressive, if ultimately not all that consequential. LSU was certainly content to let Florida Magikarp its way down the field, no?
  • Solomon Patton is so interested in running out kickoffs that I was genuinely concerned that Trey Burton's late injury would leave Patton without the guy who reminds him that running out kickoffs from eight yards deep in the end zone is stupid, and breathed a sigh of relief when Burton gave Patton the stop signal on LSU's last kickoff of the day.
  • That one tall LSU fan in the suit jacket that CBS kept on showing? I hope he is eventually annoyed by a fan in the fashion in which he annoyed me.
  • Dante Fowler tried to jump over a blocker for the second straight week.
  • The fake punt was a good call, as was the pooch punt, but I wonder how well faking a punt when Florida had a lot more time on the clock would have gone.
  • Neiron Ball had Florida's best yards per catch average of the day. He is a linebacker.
  • Kyle Christy had a perfect 100.0 QBR, according to ESPN. Tyler Murphy had a 20.0 QBR.

That's what I saw. What'd you see? I'll be in the comments all day.

Star-divide

Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.

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