The No. 8 Florida Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) faced their toughest test of the season Saturday night at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Not only did the No. 6 LSU Tigers (6-0, 4-0 SEC) pull out a hard-fought 35-28 win, it became the only remaining undefeated team in the Southeastern Conference and left Florida with plenty of questions to answer as it enters the latter half of the 2015 campaign.
“That was a heck of a college football game. It was a lot of fun to be a part of. It was a great crowd. Two really good football teams. And that team that came up on the strong end of it, they deserved to win. They took it to us,” UF head coach Jim McElwain said after the game. “But I’m going to tell you what, I’m really proud of our football team. This Gator football team is a good football team, too, don’t forget. They handled themselves in a great way.”
Before that goes down though, let OnlyGators.com breaks down seven of the most important takeaways from the Gators’ first loss under McElwain.
Can’t knock the hustle: No matter how worthy of praise Florida’s defense was entering Saturday night in Death Valley, the 12th ranked rush defense in the nation was still unable to contain the unstoppable force known as LSU running back Leonard Fournette. Try as they might, the Gators let Fournette compile 180 yards and score two touchdowns on 31 carries. UF was able to slow Fournette down in the second half (16 carries, 80 yards) but only after he rumbled for 100 and two scores on 15 carries in the opening 30 minutes.
The one opportunity Florida had to get one over on Fournette – a clear forced fumble by junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III – did not benefit the team as officials made a mistake and decided the Gators did not recover the loose ball in bounds (they did). On the other side of things, UF could not get the ball going on the ground with junior RB Kelvin Taylor gaining just 25 yards on 15 touches and scoring once.
DBU? LOL. Forget referring to Florida as “DBU” for its tremendous secondary. While the Gators’ defensive backfield has been tremendous this season (and in years past), the one team that challenged the moniker, the Tigers, made UF look silly on occasions Saturday night. Florida got burned on a handful of passes over the course of the game with two defensive backs failing in coverage on separate plays against Malachi Dupre (four receptions, 115 yards, two touchdowns); plus Hargreaves, who picked up a safety’s slack and was nearly in position to make play, failed to fully come through on a long bomb that resulted in a score. Three of UF’s touchdowns came on mind-numbingly bad defensive plays, the third of which was …
Really?! Again?! Seemingly every time the Gators and Tigers square off, LSU head coach Les Miles has some tricks up his sleeve for Florida. Often times, they come on special teams, as Miles has pulled off fake field goals and fake punts on UF with relative ease over the years. So when the Tigers lined up for a field goal deep in Gators territory in the fourth quarter, everyone on the field had to know there was a good chance LSU would fake it, right? Right?! Wrong.
The go-ahead and eventual game-winning score in a 35-28 slugfest in Death Valley was a fake field goal touchdown. An obvious fake field goal touchdown that Florida should have known was coming. Was it a coaching failure or player forgetfulness? McElwain will chalk it up to a learning experience, but it is absolutely a play the Gators wish they had back.
“Give credit to them on that fake field goal; it was pretty awesome,” he said. “Good call by them and we still gave ourselves an opportunity with two possessions at the end of the game to come back and tie it up. … Give them credit: It’s a heck of a call, a gutsy call. … It’s kind of a badge of honor to think they got to fake one to beat us.”
Star is born: After Florida came from behind to beat Tennessee, it was made quite clear on this site that the Gators had not only found a quarterback in redshirt freshman Will Grier but also a game-breaking wide receiver in freshman Antonio Callaway. Well, Callaway did nothing but continue to impress Saturday, hauling in three receptions for 100 yards and returning a punt 72 yards for a touchdown.
He also laid an incredible block on a long reception by junior WR Demarcus Robinson that eventually led to a touchdown. Callaway’s punt return score extended Florida’s nation-leading record to 11 consecutive seasons with a kickoff or punt brought back for a touchdown; his efforts on offense made it clear that he is indeed a special talent and has the opportunity to develop into one of UF’s best receivers in ages.
Not bad, but not great either: Sophomore QB Treon Harris performed well in place of Grier, especially in the first half when he completed 9-of-11 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns to redshirt senior tight end Jake McGee. The second half? Well … Harris went 8 of 20 for 156 yards, 41 of which came on a Hail Mary-style bomb on UF’s final drive.
The contention here remains that while Harris may be able to avoid a collapse for Florida, he is not prone to go out and win the Gators a game like Grier did in limited action this season. Harris is simply unable to make all the throws Grier proved capable of completing – sideline, back shoulder, tight windows – and his height is a hindrance. He also prefers to move horizontally when protection breaks down as opposed to vertically. Florida can and will win with Harris, but it won’t be as successful as it could be with Grier at the helm – plain and simple.
In control: If there was every a time and way for the Gators to lose a game, on a fake field goal in Death Valley at night to a No. 6-ranked team in the seventh week of the season is it. Florida should not be majorly affected by the LSU losses and will likely remain a top-15 team when the AP Top 25 is released Sunday afternoon.
Similarly, the Gators’ ability to advance to the SEC Championship and potentially, if they’re lucky, the College Football Playoff, is also far from erased. With only one SEC loss, Florida remains atop the SEC East. As long as it beats Georgia in two weeks, the Gators will only have to avoid catastrophe against South Carolina and Vanderbilt in order to advance to the league’s title game. Should UF drop that game, which would certainly be an upset at this point, UGA still has to face Kentucky and play at Auburn.
Florida remains the favorite to win the SEC East, which gives it a legitimate opportunity to fulfill all of its once improbable but suddenly possible dreams. The Gators control their own destiny, at least as far as the SEC is concerned. It’s tough to ask for much more than that considering where this team was a year ago.
Quicker hits: Florida converted a fourth down into a touchdown early in the game with Harris hitting McGee for a 4-yard touchdown … that play came after redshirt sophomore defensive back Nick Washington recovered a muffed punt following the first series of the game … Hargreaves’s forced fumble that was not ruled recovered by UF led to 21 straight points by LSU … Fournette not only participated in a flea flicker but also took a Wildcat carry into the end zone for a touchdown … redshirt junior defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (fullback) and freshman DE CeCe Jefferson (offense) both played offense for the Gators and participated in Taylor’s touchdown run … LSU outgained UF 221-55 on the ground … the Gators and Tigers are now 16-16 all-time in Baton Rouge … Miles improved to 7-4 against Florida as LSU’s coach, 5-1 in Baton Rouge … Saturday was UF’s first top-10 matchup since Nov. 24, 2012 … the Gators have played six night games in seven weeks … “Today, we flunked the test,” McElwain said. “We’re better than that. And our guys know it. I’m not mad at them. They played hard. They care.”