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Florida vs. LSU, Three Takeaways: Gators go west to win East

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The Gators rose up to stage a seismic upset.

NCAA Football:  Florida at Louisiana State Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I’m gonna guess there will not be other longish recaps of Florida’s 16-10 win over LSU, but even if I did promise one, some cruel fate would prevent it.

Florida’s defense made one of its greatest stands

Florida’s proud defenses have been the pride of the program for much of the last decade — certainly, since 2009 or so, when Dan Mullen’s genius and Percy Harvin’s gifts left Gainesville on twin ascents, the Gators have been a defense-first team.

But few Florida bulwarks in recent memory have been as riddled by injuries in the past — maybe just one, actually — as this one is in the present.

Florida played on Saturday without Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, and Marcus Maye, all of whom might still receive All-America and All-SEC consideration, and each of whom would be the best defensive player on scores of FBS teams. Bryan Cox, Jr. missed this game, too, to crickets — Cox not being on the field was a common question on Twitter during some games earlier this season, thanks to fans on Twitter deriving all of their information from television broadcasts and the Twitter echo chamber, but his contributions were missed so little during this game that his name was literally not mentioned on Twitter during the game, per a couple of searches.

The rest of Florida’s “healthy” defensive linemen seem to be dealing with one nagging injury after another: Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, CeCe Jefferson, and Jordan Sherit have all missed at least snaps this year due to injury, and every Gator on that list but Brantley missed a game.

The healthy players, right now are the corners — exceptional corners, to be clear — and the young, green ones. And while the corners were fine enough on Saturday, Teez Tabor’s marvelous pass breakup aside, the young bucks balled.

Vosean Joseph’s crushing lick on Danny Etling — which saved not just a touchdown that would have given LSU at least a 10-point lead, but points, thanks to the Tigers screwing up the snap and hold on the field goal they were forced to try — was the show-stopper, but he was also in the right place at the exact right moment to scarf up Donte Jackson’s fumbled kickoff. One week after having 11 tackles against South Carolina, David Reese had 12 tackles, more than Anzalone and Davis had in all but one of their games in 2016 — and he could have had a pick-six. Kylan Johnson had five solo tackles, as many as Anzalone has had in a game in his career, and fell on a fumble. Keivonnis Davis had five tackles, a career high. Chauncey Gardner walloped one punt returner and severed the ankles of a punt blocker.

The youth movement was aided by a few fantastic performances from veterans, to be sure. Caleb Brantley was monstrous, with a career-high three tackles for loss and a forced fumble not capturing the full impact of his disruption. Teez Tabor made an utterly absurd play to break up a deep ball, and he, too, had a career-high five solo tackles. Marcell Harris had 11 tackles in one of his best games for Florida. And Jefferson had that huge sack to get Florida off the goal line.

But the story of Saturday, more than youth and big plays, is just how incredibly good the Gators were with goal to go.

Florida’s first goal-to-go defensive series forced LSU to run three plays to get in, with the Tigers backing up to the 11 from the 6 on a false start. The second one was immediately ended on a forced fumble. The third one featured a six-yard run by Leonard Fournette, a two-yard run to the 1 — and then a stuff of Fournette for a loss of a yard on third and goal, and fine fire-drill defense on the botched field goal that turned into an incompletion. The fourth concluded with a 22-yard field goal from one yard further from the goal line than the series began.

The last one? You know the last one.

In all, LSU ran 16 plays with goal to go — and gained 23 yards on them. The Tigers had five goal-to-go trips — and scored 10 points. Two LSU drives featured plays run from the Florida 1 — and finished without any points at all.

Florida’s defense did not play as complete a game as it could have, and the yardage totals would suggest that it didn’t even play a good one. Etling did not face a lot of pressure, and completed 14 of 25 passes for 204 yards — the third straight game in which passers have completed better than half of their throws and tallied more than 200 yards against the Gators. LSU ran for another 237 yards, at nearly five yards per carry. D.J. Chark — whose name makes me think he is a fictional character from an NCAA Football 14 dynasty made sentient — had 97 yards on five touches, probably because he donned some amulet that made the Gators incapable of foreseeing end-arounds to him or not slipping when he was running a route.

When there were only so many yards left to get, though, Florida allowed so few, and yielded such little ground that an otherwise LSU-leaning box score resulted in a W for the Orange and Blue.

That resilience on this Saturday may echo in memory for years to come.

Florida’s offense should stick to the plan, man

Florida fans hate Florida’s offensive coordinators. That’s just how it is.

Ever since Steve Spurrier revolutionized football — by, uh, throwing the ball well in the SEC for a change, simple as that was — in the 1990s, Gators fans have had their Platonic ideal for offense: Spurrier-esque swash-buckling that features lots of pretty passes that we can ooh and ahh at before they drop into receivers’ hands for 60-yard scores. I have mocked the fealty to this ideal as an addiction in the past — and I’m still pretty sure I’m not wrong about it — but it’s also just true that Spurrier’s era was the formative period for most Florida fans.

That’s why, when the aforementioned Dan Mullen had the aforementioned Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow and Louis Murphy and Bubba Caldwell and Riley Cooper and pre-murder Aaron Hernandez, and the play-calling was perceived as stagnant and uninspired, a Florida fan mocked up the Florida Gators Offensive Decision Maker as a spinning wheel with just six options.

That was, I believe, created in 2007, a year in which Florida:

  • Had a player win the Heisman Trophy
  • Produced the first FBS quarterback to throw and run for 20 touchdowns in a year
  • Averaged 42.5 points per game, its most since the Spurrier era
  • Scored 552 points, a school record
  • Rushed for 2,500 yards and threw for 3,000 yards for the first time in school history

Florida fans complained about the offense in the years immediately before and after that, in which Florida won two national championships, and complained about the offense in 2009, as it rushed and passed for 3,000 yards and came three yards shy of the school record for total offense — Florida only scored 35.9 points per game in 2009, after all, and so many defensive and return touchdowns (five, in reality) inflated that total!

My point is this: Florida fans are going to complain literally no matter what the offense does, unless it is perfect. And while we’re all prisoners of the moment on Saturday, on other days of the week, I am largely inclined to ignore nitpicks about “play-calling” that harp on specific plays and focus on structural critiques.

I’m not sure I have many of those on this day, but I do think the Gators demonstrated again on Saturday that they have a winning formula — so long as they stick to it.

Jordan Scarlett was — and I hestitate to ever use this word, because it reduces a human being’s thinking, conscious work to animal instinct — beastly against LSU, running over and through and around Tigers who could not meet his ferocity. (Sorry, Kendell Beckwith!) He ran for 108 yards behind a line that mauled LSU up front, one that permitted just one true negative play in the running game — aside from that pitch on third and goal, which I’ll get to — against a defense as loaded with NFL talent as LSU ever is.

And that negative play? It was followed immediately by this manful run by Lamical Perine, who acquired a Jamal Adams-shaped backpack and toted it for 10 yards.

Florida ran for more yards per carry against LSU than any team other than Alabama has this year — and LSU has played Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, and Auburn at Auburn — and did so with a third-string center and a banged-up left tackle and a true freshman at right tackle and two sophomores on that third-string center’s shoulders and a sophomore and a true freshman sharing carries and a largely ineffective passing game permitting the Tigers to load the box as they saw fit.

Oh, and that largely ineffective passing game still mustered a 98-yard touchdown pass — the second-longest play in school history, the longest play by Florida in almost 40 yards, and the longest play from scrimmage ever in Tiger Stadium, a building that has existed since 1924. That came off the hand of a backup graduate transfer from Purdue, and plopped into the hands of a true freshman from Texas, who shoulder-shrugged a top-tier defensive back and then ran to paydirt.

This is what Florida’s offense has been able to do this year, at least against overmatched foes: Run the ball consistently and effectively, so long as Scarlett and Perine are getting most of the carries, and maybe hit a big play here or there to keep the defense honest. The line is good enough to get punch up front, and Scarlett and Perine are good enough to make use of a hole or two; the line isn’t good enough to let any QB stand and read the field for extended periods of time, but there are enough playmakers to take shots, and the scheme works to get them open.

And Florida did all of that against a very good foe to ring up a win on Saturday, even though there were legitimate complaints to be ledged against the play-calling. Yes, that pitch near the goal line was probably an unnecessary zag from the power runs that had fueled that long drive. Yes, Florida playing for a field goal while up by three — probably more on Jim McElwain than Doug Nussmeier, if you ask me — after getting the ball in LSU territory on a gift fumble was vexing, even though the field goal ultimately forced LSU to drive the field and fail at the goal line rather than playing for overime. Yes, I, too, was perplexed by two straight Appleby incompletions shorting out a drive that began with runs for four, 12, 13, and eight yards to charge out of the shadow of Florida’s own goalposts.

But, yes, Florida won both because and in spite of the play-calling — unless you think Nussmeier should get the credit for calling a shot to Tyrie Cleveland from the Florida 2 and ramming Scarlett down the Tigers’ gastrointestinal tract for most of the second half wiped out entirely by those hiccups.

And yes, the future is bright.

Every unnamed player from those two paragraphs up there, save Austin Appleby, should be available to the Gators’ offense until January 2018 — and I didn’t even mention Antonio Callaway, DeAndre Goolsby, Josh Hammond, C’yontai Lewis, Brandon Powell, or Freddie Swain, all of whom were quiet on Saturday, and all of whom have at least one play of 25 or more yards in their Florida careers. Maybe David Sharpe, whose possession of an NFL-caliber body and CFL-caliber film is reminiscent of D.J. Humphries, tests the NFL waters — he would be the only one to do so from an offense that has been improving in ways large and small. I suspect the quarterback Florida plays instead of Appleby is probably going to be a lot more like him — cannon-armed, if erratic — than Luke Del Rio, who I imagine is going to be pushed hard by Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask in offseason practices.

With a formula that seems to work and reactants that are not limited, it doesn’t take a Curie to see that Florida should be able to alchemize points for some years to come. Whether they will come in quantities large enough to compete for championships or in dazzling explosions that will satisfy pyrotechnic-happy fans remains to be seen — but it seems to me that Florida is starting to put distance between the days when Florida fans fretting about scoring any points and the halcyon days of Florida fans complaining about how many points the Gators put up.

This felt different. Was it the fulcrum?

Florida’s 1.8 years under Jim McElwain have been comprised of days for waiting and seeing. Could McElwain rev up Florida’s offense? Could he beat Florida’s rivals? Could he find a quarterback? Could he get the Gators back atop the SEC East, and into the playoff picture?

Before the LSU game last year, wasn’t the answer to all of those questions yes?

Florida had stormed back to beat Tennessee behind its offense, then skunked Mississippi with an offensive fireworks show that came out of the blue. Florida had a win over Tennessee, and would probably have been favored to beat LSU, Georgia — which it did, anyway — and Florida State. Florida had a commanding SEC East lead after beating Missouri, and was poised to be in the top 10 in the playoff rankings until getting knocked off.

Then Will Grier got suspended, and reset the clock.

Since losing Grier, Florida’s offense has scored 30 points twice — and started a quarterback initially recruited to Florida by the current coaching staff zero times.

Since losing Grier, Florida has lost to LSU, Florida State, Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee, and Arkansas — all but FSU away from home, all but Arkansas likely to finish both 2015 and 2016 ranked, all but Tennessee and Arkansas in the top 10 of S&P+ in 2015.

Since losing Grier, Florida has leaned on the formula that Will Muschamp’s Gators used for brief success and ultimate failure — while weaning itself off that approach, and toward a more aggressive, less defense-reliant one.

But this Saturday felt like a step forward into a new phase.

Florida went on the road and beat a ranked team for the first time under McElwain, and though LSU is now just 6-4, it’s also No. 7 in S&P+, even after Saturday. Florida scored more points on LSU at LSU than Alabama did, and won despite being a two-touchdown underdog in some bookmakers’ eyes. The Gators were almost as desiccated by injury as they had been in years, and still stood up to a team that called them “scared” for a month, defeating it in front of more than 100,000 fans.

As Scott Carter noted, this felt different.

Maybe this isn’t a turning point. Maybe Florida faceplants at FSU, or gets shut out for the first time in decades by Alabama. Maybe struggling to score in a bowl game happens, or this big ol’ win doesn’t translate into recruiting momentum, or coaches leave. I’ve written something similar after a win over LSU before.

But for now, it feels like Florida just found the fulcrum to get the lever swinging its way again.