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LSU 37, Florida 34: Mistake-prone, cleat-tossing Gators shoot themselves in the feet

Marco Wilson’s mistake was just one on a night full of them. But it was the latest, greatest, and most fatal.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Florida Brad McClenny-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators had found themselves in a bar-room brawl with LSU, as so many of their meetings with the Tigers are. The score was tied at 34 all in the fourth quarter; LSU had just thrown short of the sticks on third down, with Marco Wilson combining on a tackle to force fourth down.

And then Wilson all but threw the Gators’ chances away — literally.

Wilson was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for chucking LSU tight end Kole Taylor’s cleat 20 yards downfield — the referee made sure to note it was 20 yards. The penalty extended what would be the Tigers’ final offensive drive. And at the end of that drive, LSU kicker Cade York put a 59-yard field goal between the pipes for a 37-34 lead.

And at the end of the game, even after Kyle Trask and Kadarius Toney connected to give Evan McPherson a chance to tie from 51 yards out, LSU stood victorious in The Swamp.

The agony of defeat, meet the agony of de-feet.

Wilson had started the night strongly, unusually for him in a senior year that has been marked by poor play and plenty of public criticism, but he and Florida’s defense had few answers for LSU freshman quarterback Max Johnson, who took what the Gators gave both as a runner and a passer en route to 291 yards of total offense (239 passing, 52 rushing) and three touchdowns through the air.

Wilson was also flagged for pass interference on LSU’s final touchdown drive on what initially appeared to be a third-down stop. And he wasn’t the only Florida defensive back to cede valuable turf and touchdowns to the Tigers, who came to Gainesville without tight end Arik Gilbert, the third premier LSU pass-catcher to opt out of this season after receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall previously did so. Johnson distributed the ball to eight targets, and got 108 yards on five balls to Kayshon Boutte, including an easy touchdown just before halftime on a massive Florida coverage bust.

But Florida’s offense had plenty to give to LSU, too.

Trask threw two interceptions and fumbled before halftime. The first pick produced an LSU pick-six, while the second came in the red zone and off a bizarre carom off Toney’s hands and an LSU defender’s helmet that only stood — rather than being confirmed — after replay review.

Trask’s third error came as the Gators tried to answer Boutte’s score, and ended up giving the Tigers another field goal — and a 24-17 lead — just before the break.

The leading Heisman candidate and Toney (a career-high 182 receiving yards and 238 yards of total offense) would still team up to put Florida back in front after halftime, however, with Trask going airborne for the second of two rushing touchdowns on the evening on one offensive drive and finding Toney on a well-blocked screen on the next to re-establish a 31-27 Florida lead.

Yet as thick fog rolled into The Swamp, Florida’s defense couldn’t hold that lead. Wilson’s pass interference preceded a deep ball to Jaray Jenkins over a failed corner blitz that set up the Tigers to score another go-ahead touchdown.

After three three-and-outs, Florida answered with a sprint down the field that bogged down in the red zone — where the Gators turned eight opportunities into just four touchdowns — and culminated in a game-tying field goal.

And then came what will likely forever be known in Florida infamy as the Shoe Throw, marking the Jordan Brand-wearing team’s baffling loss as the Shoe Game.

Florida’s loss drops the Gators to 8-2 on the season and almost certainly out of College Football Playoff contention even with a shocking upset win over Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. No program has made the Playoff with two losses in its existence, and the Gators would not seem well-positioned to be the first, especially since LSU improved to just 4-5 with its victory.

Trask’s Heisman candidacy is also likely significantly damaged, though the Gators played without Kyle Pitts — held out despite going through walkthroughs — and Trask’s stat line (474 yards, two passing touchdowns, two interceptions, and two rushing touchdowns) was certainly formidable.

But most of all, Florida’s play in this game — on the doorstep of a SEC title clash that would have served as a de facto play-in game for the Playoff — proved that Dan Mullen’s program, for all its climbing in his three years, still has much work to do to reach the mountaintop.

The hard truth is that the Gators are more than a shoe’s throw away.