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LSU 45, Florida 35: Gators’ defense hits sour notes on Tom Petty Day

Despite the soundtrack of the night, the Florida defense did plenty of backing down.

LSU v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

In 2019, Florida went toe-to-toe with an LSU squad that has since been hailed as one of the greatest in college football history, earning a hard-fought loss in Tiger Stadium that felt like a rising program giving a juggernaut all it could handle.

In 2022’s edition of Florida-LSU, the score on the scoreboard once again showed LSU 42, Florida 28 — but the Gators’ defense strumming all the wrong chords on Tom Petty Day in The Swamp made the feeling a lot more like free-fall for Billy Napier’s first season, even if the final margin shrank to 45-35 in favor of Brian Kelly’s Tigers.

LSU scored touchdowns on its first six full offensive possessions, answering a handful of early haymakers from Florida — Trevor Etienne returning the opening kickoff to near midfield, a bomb from Anthony Richardson to Justin Shorter for the night’s first touchdown, and touchdowns on Florida’s second drive and after a muffed punt by LSU that would be the Gators’ last scores until the fourth quarter — with sustained efficiency and effectiveness.

Jayden Daniels accounted for 393 yards and six touchdowns — three passing, three rushing — and outfoxed Florida defenders all night, whether by zipping quick throws or scampering away from rushers to extend plays or get around end.

And his only real mistake of the night, an interception with LSU up 42-35 in the fourth, was wiped out by a questionable roughing the passer penalty on Florida’s Gervon Dexter, who appeared to arrive just after Daniels released a ball ultimately tipped and caught by Jason Marshall, but kept his arms wide and his head up while falling into and then on Daniels rather than throwing him down. Dexter’s considerable weight did fall on Daniels, which has been an increasingly important component when considering rushing the passer in recent years, but it was hard to see how he could have stopped himself from doing what he did in the tenths of seconds available after Daniels’s release.

Still, that would have probably been Florida’s most impressive defensive stop of the night. There weren’t many other candidates.

LSU rolled up 528 yards of total offense, 306 in the first half, and had one non-kneeldown drive of fewer than 46 yards and just two of fewer than 70. The Tigers also went 8-for-12 on third down — and 2-for-2 on the fourth downs that followed two of those failures, and only faced two third downs shorter than third and six all night. Only some diminishing returns on runs late in the game prevented the Tigers from averaging over eight yards per play; the 7.54 they settled for is, of course, not much better for Florida’s defense.

And Florida’s offense, to its credit, kept the Gators at least within shouting distance. Richardson tallied 294 yards of total offense, and bolted 81 yards for an electrifying touchdown on a scramble shortly after Florida’s traditions new and old at the fourth-quarter intermission. Montrell Johnson added 57 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, while Shorter had 71 yards and his early TD to lead Florida’s receivers.

But 35 points against an LSU defense that lived up to its reputation for saline content at times only got Florida a game that it had to play from behind from halftime onward, with the Gators giving up LSU’s first lead on a free play — thanks to an offsides jump — with a little more than two minutes to go before halftime.

And Florida’s offense walked off the field for halftime to a chorus of boos from fans unhappy that the Gators did not press harder and use timeouts in an effort for a game-tying touchdown before the break, despite the obvious risk of a failure with time on the clock giving LSU a shot to deliver a knockout blow.

If this Florida and LSU rivalry is turning into a series of slobberknockers, as seems possible, the Gators currently seem like metaphorical flyweights trying to keep up with a middleweight program.

Running down the dream of being more may require a longer jog than many hoped.