Image Credit: ESPN Images
The Florida Gators earned their most impressive road win in years on Saturday, outscoring the LSU Tigers 16-3 after the first quarter on the way to the first road victory against a ranked opponent under head coach Jim McElwain. And the way the Gators did it — with a mix of offense and defense, in the road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in what really should have been a home game — made it even more impressive.
Florida (8-2, 6-2 SEC) clinched its second straight SEC East title and a return to the SEC Championship Game with a 16-10 win over LSU that is undoubtedly the signature win of McElwain’s career to this point.
Here are seven things we learned from the Gators’ win on Saturday.
1. Florida officially stopped messing around: The Gators have been a temperamental team over the last few seasons, one that can get hot at any point during a game but quickly lose focus and crumble when faced with adversity. That did not happen Saturday. In fact, every time Florida took a body blow, it seemed to respond with a jab or an uppercut. LSU drove the field for a touchdown, UF responded with a field goal. The Tigers drive down again, redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley forces a fumble and redshirt junior punter Johnny Townsend flips the field. LSU looks poised to score again coming out of the half, Florida’s pressure forces a field goal, which results in a dropped snap and then a near-school record 98-yard touchdown catch by freshman wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland. The Gators defense holds another long drive Tigers drive to a field goal, and the offense bounces back with another. Florida overcomes poor coaching after recovering a fumble on a kickoff and a failed stop on fourth-and-10 late in the fourth quarter with a goal-line stand to end the game. It happened again and again on Saturday. “That was a heck of a game. It was back and forth. Our guys didn’t let momentum bother them like it has in the past,” McElwain said. It was obvious.
2. The Gators have two legit running backs: It took McElwain three quarters of the season to understand what so many, including OnlyGators.com were preaching since early in the year: Florida has a bell cow at running back and his name is Jordan Scarlett. The sophomore took 22 carries for 108 yards on Saturday, dominating the second half on the way to his fourth game of 93+ yards in the last five weeks. Scarlett has posted either 93+ yards and/or a touchdown in eight of the 10 games he’s played with the lone exceptions being Week 1 and a five-carry outing at Arkansas. Freshman Lamical Perine has also impressed for Florida in spurts this season and had one of the signature moments in Saturday’s game when he carried the entire LSU defense with him for 22 yards inside the 5-yard line to set up a score. McElwain gave Scarlett some props live on SEC Network but did not truly sing his praises after the game. The fact that Scarlett got 22 carries compared to seven for Perine and none for anyone else says it all.
3. The offensive line can step up when it wants: Saturday was the third time this season where the Gators offensive line was motivated and tuned-in enough to truly help Florida win a game. In addition to paving the way toward 146 rushing yards on 29 carries, most late in the game against a tough LSU defensive front, it only gave up one sack and often allowed graduate transfer quarterback Austin Appleby some decent time in the pocket. This was not lost on McElwain. “Our offensive line was challenged. They were called out. Interesting to watch the replay, but I think we played with some pad level and we played with some resolve and some finish and some energy,” he said. “That’s the way you have to play the game. I thought they did that.”
4. Bend but don’t break defense emerges: Florida’s defense is no longer the dominant unit that began the season, which is bound to happen when a defense loses its three leading tacklers (both veteran linebackers and a first-round safety) as well as a starting defensive end. Instead, what you saw Saturday was defense typical of the ones defensive coordinator Geoff Collins led at Mississippi State: A unit that gives up yards but locks down in the red zone. The Gators allowed the Tigers to pick up 423 yards on the afternoon and average 6.0 yards per play, but Florida also allowed just 10 points in five red zone trips (fumble recovery, two turnovers on downs).
5. There were questionable coaching decisions: Florida won the game, which is the result it wanted, but there’s no doubt that there were a number of head-scratching calls made in this game. The Gators failed to call a timeout in hopes of challenging a spot on a punt that the Tigers took at the 20 when it really should’ve been down a yard or two outside the end zone. Florida called a toss play when the Gators were pounding the ball up the middle and settled for a field goal instead of continuing a possible touchdown drive. After recovering a fumble off a kickoff return, Florida failed to run the clock down between touches late in the fourth quarter, first running to the short side of the field (and out of bounds) and then snapping too quickly on second down. On third-and-6, the Gators snapped quick again and ran the ball rather than attempting a throw to convert the down and continue the drive, which would have paved the way toward a much easier victory.
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier deserves legitimate criticism for the way his unit handled things late, but it is also up to McElwain to ensure his players know the situations. It was also questionable how McElwain decided to use his timeouts on the final defensive drive of the game: LSU was running it down for a final play, and Florida needed to preserve time in case the Tigers actually did score. McElwain always talks about players learning lessons from film. The coaches should from this one, too.
6. Penalties and turnovers win football games … well, when you don’t commit them. Check this: The Gators had one penalty (for five yards) and no turnovers on Saturday. The Tigers had two penalties (for 20 yards) and two turnovers. Those extra chances led to three points for Florida but really a 10-point swing in the game considering LSU’s position on the field. (It was the fourth time in program history that the Gators matched a team-low with one penalty.)
7. Odds and ends: Saturday marked the Florida’s first road win over an SEC West opponent since 2012 and first at LSU since 2009 … the Gators advanced to their 12th SEC Championship Game, most in league history … McElwain is the first coach in SEC history to reach the title game in his first two years … UF snapped a three-game losing streak to LSU … Appleby’s 98-yard touchdown pass to Cleveland was the second-longest in program history and longest against an SEC opponent … Florida bucked a lot of trends in Saturday’s game, improving to 2-5 against ranked opponents, 4-5 when trailing at the half, 3-4 when the opponent scores first and 4-6 when being outrushed by an opponent