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LSU 49, Florida 42: Gators get run over in punishing upset

Florida had no answers for the simple questions LSU asked of it on Saturday. Dan Mullen ought to provide simple answers to the obvious questions for his team.

NCAA Football: Florida at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

By the end, it was just a handful of plays that the LSU Tigers were running on offense against the Florida Gators on Saturday in Tiger Stadium.

A counter, with a guard pulling. A power, creating a lane for a running back. And maybe a couple of variations on that.

And, in fairness, LSU scored its game-winning touchdown on something trickier — a play-action pass with a jet motion that fooled Florida defenders just enough to let Max Johnson get just enough space to throw a pass to Jaray Jenkins, who had just enough space to eliminate any angles to a tackle between him and the end zone.

But just enough is enough — and LSU’s 49-42 win over Florida, in a game that was in turns a thrill ride and a thrashing, will have many Florida fans declaring that enough is enough for two elements of Florida’s football program.

First among them? Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator.

The Florida defense never found a solution for LSU’s running game, and so Tyrion Davis-Price had one of the great days in college football history — 36 carries, an LSU-record 287 rushing yards, and three touchdowns — toting the rock, squeezing through creases and sprinting through holes. His longest run on the day went for only 40 yards, but he averaged nearly eight yards a carry, and explosives are rarely necessary when the pickax chips away at the crumbling edifice that efficiently.

Johnson also threw for 133 yards and three touchdowns, connecting on important passes when necessary, but LSU made its own quarterback a glorified waiter delivering the ball to Davis-Price for much of the second half, putting together stretches of 15 straight handoffs, 16 straight runs, and runs on 19 of the game’s final 20 non-kneeldown plays.

Florida — somewhat unbelievably — still coaxed six punts out of a game in which its defense gave up all that ground, and only truly conceded 42 of LSU’s 49 points thanks to an Emory Jones pick-six. But it gave up 21 points in a more sluggish first half, with two other picks — one by Jones, one by Anthony Richardson — leading to two short drives, and failed to mount meaningful resistance to LSU once the Tigers got things rolling.

And due to that, it’s hard to see any convincing reasoning Grantham should keep his position beyond this weekend. It’s hard to fathom that Florida could play worse defense than it did in this game, and the combination of that feeling and the idea that a makeover on that side of the ball has been overdue should be as persuasive to Dan Mullen as it is to the majority of Gator Nation.

The good news on that front is that Mullen did seem to grasp in this game that another bayed-for change had become necessary, with Richardson taking the reins of Florida’s offense for most of the second half after Jones contributed a pick-six to LSU’s tally on a poor throw in the third quarter.

And the early returns on that were quite good: Richardson would lead four consecutive touchdown drives in the second half, bringing the Gators level with the Tigers at 28-28, 35-35, and 42-42 with a mix of his adept running and some eye-popping passing. Jones had moments of glory in this game, to be clear — most notably, he launched a staggering pre-halftime Hail Mary throw to Justin Shorter for an unbelievable touchdown and delivered a strike on third and 16 while briefly relieving an injured Richardson in the fourth quarter.

But Jones’s good moments did not outweigh his bad moments — and Richardson’s sustained level of performance alone would have made him the right choice to finish out the game, even if he hadn’t also produced moments as marvelous as his final touchdown pass, a perfect teardrop throw to a streaking Jacob Copeland in LSU’s end zone.

It is hard to imagine a compelling argument that Florida should not make Richardson its starting quarterback going forward, especially with this loss dropping it well and truly out of contention for the biggest baubles in college football this season. The old argument for Richardson was a familiar one: Jones has at most one more season in Gainesville, and has perhaps hit the ceiling on his potential; Richardson has more time to grow, and more — maybe significantly more — headroom.

But Richardson was also simply a better quarterback on this day. And if Mullen wants to preserve at least a veneer of meritocracy in his program, he would do well to permanently elevate Richardson, whose body of work has now convincingly earned the shot to start at the same time that Jones’s has earned a demotion.

Florida will now turn to playing out the string in a season that should now be about diagnosis of problems, development of solutions, and implementation of the plan to go from the former to the latter, bruised badly by another baffling loss to a rival it has not solved and does not scare. This is the punishment for three losses in even this high-chaos football season: Irrelevance to the current championship chase, and the thin gruel of solace that is hope for the future.

But Florida has had no better opportunities to make two changes that seem necessary — the firing of Grantham and the elevation of Richardson — than it now has in hand.

Mullen taking advantage of that silver lining would go a long way to changing the mood of a fan base that largely feels drenched by downpours, and cannot see a break in the clouds.