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Florida vs. LSU, Sunday Rundown: Gators show plenty of life despite Death Valley loss

"The best Florida loss ever" is a bit much. But there's no denying the Gators can be proud of their play.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

As always, the Sunday Rundown is intentionally written with first-take thoughts on a Florida game, and without a second look at tape. For Florida's 35-28 loss to LSU, I watched the game at a friend's place, with a few other games going on — and drawing my attention — at the same time.

How Florida Lost

I mean, you know...

I saw a tweet last night — I don't remember from whom, so apologies for the lack of credit — suggesting that, at least when it comes to fakes, Les Miles is Lucy and Florida is Charlie Brown. I don't think that's exactly right, especially because Lucy never pulled the ball away and threw it to a kicker for a touchdown, but there's something to the idea that Miles's wizardry when it comes to fakes works well against Florida.

If I were really trying to come up with a comparison, though: Florida playing LSU, at least this decade, is a Scooby-Doo cartoon in reverse. You see the villain unmasked at the beginning of the episode, and then you get all the wacky hijinks, and you're left trying to solve the mystery.

And that's not satisfying, no. The meddling kids should win every so often, right?


Antonio F. Callaway

That's the same F. in the middle of Bucky Dent's name, for the record, but it's a good one.

Callaway almost won this game by his damn self. His absurd one-handed catch down the sideline re-energized Florida after a few bad drives, and I think it might have given Treon Harris the confidence to throw deep after that juncture. His punt return was electrifying, even if he's not quite the athlete that either Andre Debose or Brandon James were. His "drop" on an excellent pass break-up in the end zone is the sort of play that maybe one in 100 wide receivers can make. His final 41-yard catch kept Florida alive.

He is ours and you cannot have him. He is ours and I intend to cherish him.


Rallying, not reeling

I will die on this hill: Florida never really gave up or gave in under Will Muschamp, even in its worst games; it just didn't have the firepower to do much more than flail when it fell behind. I think any serious and holistic analysis of Florida's last two years would suggest as much.

That said: Holy hell, it is a relief to have a team that instills belief in the likelihood of comebacks, rather than one that leaves fans pondering possibilities.

Florida has now staged two comebacks from two-touchdown deficits this year, and if the first one coming in the fourth quarter against Tennessee was stirring, the second one coming at LSU and after a eviscerator of a touchdown to essentially end the first half was more impressive. And, yes, Callaway's punt return was technically a special teams play, but Florida's offense was much better than expected after halftime, and essentially up until the point at which the potential game-tying TD to Callaway was jarred loose.

This offense gets players open and produces explosive plays far more often than any under Muschamp did. It makes hoping for a comeback a matter of waiting for a big play, not praying manna will fall from heaven. And while Muschamp's merry band of offensive coordinators did occasionally fashion the players on hand into effective offenses, at least for short stretches, it was rarely aesthetically pleasing; this year, Callaway has more "How on Earth" plays in the good sense than most Florida fans can readily recall from the last four (or five, or six) years, and he's just one of a few playmakers at these significantly more aggressive coaches' disposal.

There's also reason to believe this is just the beginning: Florida is really only likely to lose Jake McGee and Demarcus Robinson (...I guess?) from this year's offense, at least among its major contributors, and it's pretty likely to add an infusion of talent on that side of the ball in this recruiting cycle.

Hiring Jim McElwain was supposed to fix Florida's offense eventually; instead, he and Doug Nussmeier may have done most of the heavy lifting immediately. And getting the 800-pound gorilla that was the oppressively embittered reaction to sputtering Gators offenses under Muschamp off the program's back is a Herculean feat.

Both Good and Bad

Perfection yields to pride

Florida's not perfect anymore, which is obviously a totally crushing defeat for a team that Las Vegas predicted to have a losing season in 2015, and one that most of us thought would struggle to find seven wins on the season. The Gators are still bowl-eligible, still in command of the SEC East, and still en route to a season much, much better than even slightly rosy projections.

And that's cool, because a loss was bound to happen at some point — it always does for Florida, of course. Ripping the Band-Aid off, and in a game that could arguably be "the best loss ever," and without Will Grier under center, lets the fans who want to play semantic "You know, Florida's still undefeated when Grier plays" games do so, while also pushing any expectations about national title contention to 2016, when he'll make his eventual return.

I don't think that's exactly fair to the Florida team that exists in 2015, but, well, some fans will never be fair. And moving the window of expectations isn't all bad: If the Gators were playing with house money before losing Grier and losing a game, they're playing with everything comped now. Making the SEC Championship Game or winning 10 games with a redshirt freshman QB would've been impressive, but doing either or both with two different QBs would be exceedingly so.

After a 2012 season that seemed much like this 2015 season came crashing down in a hail of turnovers against Georgia, it feels a lot better to just get beaten by a very good team on the road in a close game, and after 2013 and 2014, essentially every remaining final outcome for this season is still going to feel like a massive improvement.

If you can't take pride in that, and in the way Florida played on Saturday, despite the loss? I feel bad for you.

Making the monster work

Leonard Fournette got his 180 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Florida. He's gotten 158 yards in every game this year, of course, so that's not a surprise, but he's only averaged fewer yards per carry once, in LSU's opener against Mississippi State, and that was with a far less effective Brandon Harris; last night, Florida had to legitimately respect Harris as a passer, even if it conceded its nickel alignment to bring on linebacker Jeremi Powell in the first half, and that got Fournette some extra running room.

Fournette had 10 plays of 10 or more yards against the Gators, on nine carries and a reception, but didn't break any play for more than 25 yards for the first time this year. (Mississippi State allowed him one 26-yard carry.) And he wasn't ever able to truly take over the game: All nine of those carries were scattered well enough among his 31 carries that none were back-to-back, and he didn't put away the Gators late when he could have.

Florida also limited LSU's more mortal runners to a more pedestrian 41 yards on 10 carries, and those figures look even better if you consider Trent Domingue's 16-yard touchdown run on the fake field goal more like a special teams play.

Unquestionably, Fournette did his damage, and Florida did not "win" its battle against him, nor did the Gators stop him in any sense but a very limited one. But Florida also did not let him rampage on his own, as he had to follow blocks and take what was given rather than taking every available yard. It's not Florida's run defense I was lamenting last night, and I doubt that was your feeling, either.

Needs Improvement

Treon Harris didn't win this game

If you had told me on Friday that Harris would throw for 171 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks through three quarters in this game, I would have a) been more than a little pleased and b) asked how much Florida led by after three periods. And while Florida didn't lead in the second half, thanks to that second quarter, Harris definitely did enough to allow the Gators to win a game in which a 28-point quarter didn't happen.

He just didn't do enough to win it himself.

It's cheap and easy to compare Harris's fourth quarter — in which he completed five of 15 passes, and just two of his last 12; was sacked twice; and was called for intentional grounding — to the one that Grier had against Tennessee, and find Harris lacking. It's equally easy to say that Grier's presence on Saturday, even for the fourth quarter alone, might have swung this game to the Gators.

But it's also not wrong: Harris was pretty bad in the fourth quarter after being very, very good through three quarters — and it wouldn't have required much better play from a QB to win that game. I don't think that level of performance is beyond Harris's capacity, either; it just was on this night, I think.

He did put the ball in Callaway's hands on a potential go-ahead touchdown late, and while he had to airmail that throw (and others that Grier might have been able to drive), he was generally accurate on deep balls. He was only really abysmal on the four-and-out drive on which he misfired on all four throws. He didn't throw a pick, and tossed just a couple of interceptable balls. Sure, he was agonizingly slow to make decisions over and over again; he was also playing his first snaps as more than a glorified runner in a live game in a month, and I've seen other QBs (cough, Tyler Murphy, cough) speed up their glacial decision-making as a season progresses.

The step down from Grier to Harris is significant, we can see, and we have a better idea now than ever about why Grier became Florida's starter. But what Harris showed on Saturday is that the step down isn't so significant that Florida can't win with him — and if he improves, and Florida plays better to back him up, there's no reason to think Florida won't be in every game for the rest of this year.

Running to nowhere

Kelvin Taylor gained 25 yards on 15 carries. Brandon Powell had two carries for zero yards. Harris gained 55 yards on carries, but gave back 35 on sacks. Only Jordan Scarlett averaged over 1.7 yards per carry for Florida on this night, and he compiled all of his whopping 11 yards on one carry.

Yeah, the running game needs some work.

LSU's defensive line was great last night, and I'd argue it's the best one Florida's seen this season. It might be the best one Florida sees this season, depending on what we see from Florida State's in November and whether Florida makes an SEC Championship Game. It overwhelmed Florida's line both in pass protection and run blocking, forcing Harris to escape and make plays and yielding holes only when the Gators brought on extra blockers, something I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot more of in the future.

But this is, as I feel it necessary to keep stressing, an offensive line that was widely predicted to be a disaster this year, and one that started a sophomore, a true freshman, a redshirt sophomore, a converted defensive tackle, and an FCS transfer from left to right last night. If we can look back in January and call this night the worst performance this line had this year — and I suspect we will — then I'll be over the moon.

A simple rule for using Powell and Callaway

Does a play require quickness and an ability to make players miss? Use Brandon Powell, and get him in space by starting him in space as a slot receiver or a receipient of a pitch. Does a play require speed to get to the corner? Then use Callaway.

Florida's coaches have made so many positive changes on offense for the Gators, but their insistence on using Powell on jet sweeps (and, worse, dives) when he's not big enough to absorb contact and keep running more than once in a long while and not fast enough to get all the way to the edge is just giving plays away. And it's not like they don't realize Callaway can function in those same roles: They had him taking sweeps and excelling on them earlier this year!

I think that simply letting Callaway (or, hell, Robinson) do things with his speed on these sweeps, while allowing Powell to maximize his quickness on the edges, would probably generate 15-20 extra yards per game. And I think that replacing Powell with Callaway as Florida's primary kick returner might nab another 20-30. For a team that still needs to win on the margins, those yards could be invaluable.

Could we please have good refs for once?

As has been the case in seemingly every Florida game this year, refereeing (and specifically refereeing on calls subject to replay review) became an issue for the Gators on Saturday night. This time, Florida's Bryan Cox Jr. apparently recovering a fumble before sliding out of bounds was adjudged as him not having possession of the ball before it crossed the sideline, and another catch (I think?) was later ruled an incompletion. Florida also got a delay of game on a kickoff, which is so vanishingly rare that I've never heard of it; LSU was called for holding just twice despite being handsy all night, and one of those calls was wiped out by a foul on Florida.

As has also been the case this season, I don't think any of those calls swung the game, and as has been the case more often than not, I think the officials' incompetence also helped the Gators out: Jalen Tabor should probably have gotten called for pass interference on that fade sent his way, for example, and I'm sure Florida was guilty of some uncalled holds, too.

But I'd really like to praise a refereeing crew for making the vast majority of calls correctly and quickly at some point this year, and I'm kind of losing hope on that front.

Watch the fake

There is no good reason that Florida should ever play anything other than safe coverage against LSU on a field goal or extra point kick again while Miles is coaching the Tigers. Last night's successful fake wasn't an embarrassing one in my eyes, because McElwain is new and had never fallen prey to the Miles magic before and because the fake itself was well-executed — but I am totally, totally fine with trading off the minute chance of blocking a field goal for a much better chance of stamping out a fake.

As for the punts: Florida did get worked by Brad Wing in 2011, but it also has punt return touchdowns in each of the last two seasons against LSU. So there's clearly a better balance there than on the fake field goals.


Here lies DBU, killed by a scramble drill

LSU's first big pass play was a flea-flicker that nearly didn't work: Keanu Neal bit like a shark on the run, as Fournette's gravitational pull forced him to cheat up, but Vernon Hargreaves nearly made a great play in single coverage on Malachi Dupre, whiffing on his attempt to get a hand on a fantastic Harris throw by maybe a foot. That one gets chalked up as a coverage bust and a great play by the offense.

Dupre getting loose against Florida's secondary while Harris ran away from a rush and making Marcus Maye look like a damn fool on a third and nine with 27 seconds left in the first half? That's just embarrassing — and with the margin of victory in this game being just seven points, it might have swung the game. Imagine that ball falling incomplete and LSU being forced to punt, then Florida responding as it did in the third quarter: Things could have worked out far better, right?

Instead, for the third straight year, Florida only got truly burned by a few big pass plays against LSU — beating Brian Poole repeatedly produced the medium-sized pass plays — but those torchings were substantial enough to leave ashes and smoke behind.

Neither team can claim to be "DBU" on the merits of last night's game — LSU's defensive line and Harris himself had more to do with Treon Harris struggling when he did, and he only really struggled in a fourth quarter in which he still completed two passes of at least 38 yards; Florida allowed the finest game of Brandon Harris's college career — but the Gators had the marginally worse evening.

And their biggest embarrassment was one of the best reasons LSU won.