We’re back with Florida Football Friday Final, where OnlyGators.com takes a last look at the No. 8 Florida Gators as they prepare for their toughest test of the season, a showdown with the No. 6 LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Florida (6-0, 4-0 SEC) and LSU (5-0, 3-0 SEC) are on a collision course for each other after running through the first half of the 2015 campaign undefeated. Saturday’s game will air live nationally on ESPN at 7 p.m.
This week on OnlyGators.com
Suspension: Will Grier tests positive, suspended one year by NCAA
Arrest/Suspension: Deiondre Porter arrested on four felony counts, suspended indefinitely
Practice Update: Eliminating distractions, creating chaos and trusting Treon Harris
Gang mentality: Forget the drummed-up controversy from earlier this week. When taken in full context, Florida senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard has nothing but respect for LSU star running back Leonard Fournette. Of course, Bullard also believes in the Gators’ rushing defense, which is 12th nationally and the best Fournette will face through his first six games of the 2015 campaign.
“He’s the best back in the league. We’re just going to have to rally to the ball and tackle him,” said Bullard on Tuesday. “I don’t think he’s nothing we can’t stop, but we do all have to rally to the ball because he’s an excellent athlete.”
Don’t get it twisted. Florida understands the tough task the scheduling Gods have assigned for Saturday and has expressed nothing but respect for LSU. The Gators must beat the Tigers … on the road in Death Valley … at night … without the starting quarterback that has rallied the team to some of its best wins since two guys named Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow were on the sideline.
Head coach Jim McElwain referred to Saturday’s showdown as a “huge game” on multiple occasions. He called LSU the “most complete team – offensively, defensively, special teams” that Florida has faced to this point. And it is not lost on McElwain that the great fans and difficult environment will be another mountain for the Gators to climb.
“It’s a one-road in deal where you take the bus [into the stadium]. And for whatever the reason, the local bus company drives really slow down that ramp and just the people just supporting their Tigers,” he recalled. “I know it’s tough for people to come to The Swamp and play; that’s the way it should be.”
While McElwain is ready to have a “blast” in Tiger Stadium, what he referred to as a “celebration” of a game between two top-10 teams in the nation, he won’t be the one in the middle of what appears on the surface to be one of the most physical college football contests of the season.
First you have Florida’s defense, which has not allowed a touchdown in two road games and held then-No. 3 Ole Miss to 10 points in a four-touchdown rout. “It’s playing at a really, really high level,” McElwain said Monday of the unit. “Here’s the thing that amazes me when I watch these guys – how fast they play. It seems like, when something’s there, how fast it closes. … The coverage has been good and that doesn’t allow [the quarterback] to get his feet set and make accurate throws.”
The Gators are well aware of what they are going up against in Fournette, the former No. 1 prospect in the nation, who has rushed for at least 158 yards in five straight games (228+ in three) with 12 touchdowns on the season. Fournette is the Heisman Trophy front-runner at this point, a fact that has not been lost on McElwain.
“Let’s face it, this running back they have should be celebrated because this guy is the real deal. [He’s] a lot of fun to watch play the game,” the coach said. “[He] has taken his game and they have developed him to be not only one-dimensional but multidimensional. The guy is an every-down back at the next level and fun to watch. Should be appreciated as you watch a guy play.”
Defensive co-coordinator Randy Shannon described Fournette as a “big guy that’s very powerful, got quick feet,” noting that Fournette’s footwork – not his power – is probably the most underrated aspect about the player.
Whereas Florida struggled to wrap up opponents like Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, allowing 254 rushing yards to the Vols a couple weeks ago, it have been much stout over the last two weeks against Ole Miss (69 yards) and Missouri (106 yards). How the Gators done it? By concentrating on wrapping up rushers as opposed to trying to make a big play. Florida has cut down on its missed tackles by a significant margin, and as such, its plan for Saturday is not much different.
“That’s all you can do. You just have to gang tackle, get 5-6 guys to the football, you got to wrap up and grab cloth,” explained Shannon. “The biggest emphasis of this week in practice is wrap up and grab cloth, find a way to get the guy on the ground.”
McElwain believes that the Gators’ defense has unwittingly been prepared for this game based on the type of opponents and schedule to this point. While he feels good about where Florida is as a team entering Saturday’s game, he has also been hammering into his defense’s head that Fournette is probably expecting yet another huge day at Tiger Stadium.
“I’m sure [Fournette] probably talked to the guys at Tennessee and probably feels like he could probably get up over 300 [yards] the way we tackle,” McElwain quipped.
The defense, however, is not deterred. Florida’s players all expressed confidence that they will be able to stop LSU and Fournette on Saturday. Considering the unit’s production to this point, it’s hard not to believe them.
“We definitely know what we’re dealing with. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to go. We’ve been waiting for this all season,” junior linebacker Jarrad Davis said Tuesday. “We didn’t know we’d be in this position – top 10 – but we’re just ready to go. We’re ready to take over.”
Will Grier appeal update: Florida is mum about its appeal to the NCAA regarding the one-year suspension it handed down for redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier, who the NCAA says tested positive for a substance on its banned list. And for good reason: The last thing the Gators want is to do anything that would potentially jeopardize their appeal or the potential to get Grier eligible as soon as possible.
One source with knowledge of the situation expressed to OnlyGators.com this week an overall “positive feeling” within the University Athletic Association that Florida has a “legitimate chance” to win its appeal and get Grier’s suspension reduced. Of course, that is no guarantee as the decision is up to an NCAA panel and not UF or its lawyers, but cautious optimism is absolutely the feeling within the organization. OnlyGators.com has also learned that UF’s argument was not procedural in nature (how the sample was collected or tested) but rather about the product in question. Claims of naivete or remorse will not get a suspension reduced, but if neither a player nor his school could have known that a particular product contained a banned substance, a successful appeal would at least be within the realm of possibility.
Earlier Friday, GridironNow.com filed a staff report, citing “insiders” and noting that “school officials feel relatively good” about Grier’s appeal and his ability to be eligible for the start of 2016. The website’s Mike Huguenin was first to report Grier’s suspension on Monday.