Florida football won in The Swamp, now it must survive in Death Valley

By Michael Phillips
October 11, 2019
Florida football won in The Swamp, now it must survive in Death Valley

Image Credit: Twitter / GatorsFB

More than 90,000 fans packed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to cheer the Florida Gators and attempt to disrupt the Auburn Tigers last week. It seemed to work, and the Gators walked out with a victory to remain undefeated. No. 7 Florida (6-0, 3-0 SEC) has one of the best homefield advantages in college football, but it is in for a rude awakening if it thinks things will be as easy Saturday night when it enters Death Valley to take on the No. 5 LSU Tigers (5-0, 1-0 SEC).

“I actually got a headache in the third quarter,” junior defensive tackle Kyree Campbell said of the Auburn game. “Dead serious. Caught a migraine, but just had to tough it out.”

That was at home in The Swamp. This week Florida visits Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to take on LSU in front of 106,000 fans.

“That’s what makes this league so special — the environments you go into,” head coach Dan Mullen said. “I think homefield advantage in the SEC is a legitimate huge advantage. And not because you’re staying in your home hotel or you’re more used to the routine and your surroundings. I think it is the actual fans on game day. I know the LSU fans always do a tremendous job of giving them homefield advantage when you have to go play there on Saturday night.”

Not too many players on this current Gators team have ever experienced Death Valley, and none of them know how rowdy can be in a top-10 night game. However, the guys who were there for the 2016 upset have a good idea of what they will be walking into on Saturday.

“I’ve seen it before. I’ve been at Death Valley my freshman year when we beat them,” redshirt junior quarterback Kyle Trask said. “I’ve seen how crazy it can get. That’s just another thing that we really have to focus on this week … communication. Obviously, it’s a lot tougher to communicate when there’s a bunch of people screaming at you, but it’s nothing that’s not possible, and it’s something that we’re ready to lock in and make sure we’re sharp for this weekend.”

In order to best prepare for the hostile environment, Florida has been practicing in the loudest conditions they can. 

“It’s why I can’t hear right now,” co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy said after practice. “My ears are … deaf right now from sitting in practice doing it. It’s definitely as loud as it can be out there. We got the speakers up as loud as we can. Big speakers, about 10 feet behind them, so I don’t know if they can hear anything, but they just have to start learning the cadence of everything we’ve got to be on top of.”

The raucous environment LSU will present Saturday will be bolstered by the major improvements it has made on offense. And that’s the big matchup in this game. Can the Gators defense handle the Tigers offense and early Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Joe Burrow? 

“He’ll be the best quarterback, obviously, we’ve seen so far this year,” Mullen said. “He can make all the throws. He’s got experience; he’s been out there on the field. Playing in big games, that’s not new for him; he’s played in a bunch of big games. He’s got great skill players around him; you can see his trust in those guys to go make plays out there. And I think he’s just deceptively, really athletic. He can extend plays happen in the run game. If you’re going to give it to him, he’s going to take it. He’ll be the best quarterback we’ve faced so far this year and be a good challenge for our defense.”

LSU has traditionally been a pro-style offense that likes to control the clock with the ground game to wear you down and then hit passes on play action. That’s been thrown out the door this season with the addition of LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady. 

Now the Tigers run a spread offense that throws the ball all over the yard. So far, LSU leads the SEC in total offense (571 yards per game), scoring offense (54.6 points) and passing offense (416 yards).  

It has done wonders for Burrow, and now LSU is utilizing its talent on the offensive end like they haven’t ever done. 

“Well, for them, they’re looking at the players they have, like anybody, probably like we do. You look at your roster, the talent on your roster, what fits that talent,” Mullen said. “They have a veteran quarterback that can really throw it. They have some great skill players on the perimeter. And they have a veteran offensive line. In that case, why not spread it around and try to go score some points?”

The Gators defense has been incredible through the first six weeks themselves as they lead the conference in sacks (26) and lead the nation in interceptions (12). Florida also ranks second in total defense (276.3 yards), first in scoring defense (9.5 points) and second in passing defense (183.3 yards). 

Saturday will be a test for both sides. One has to give. Will LSU’s offense continue its tear through defenses, or will Florida chomp Burrow and the Tigers down? With the home crowd and motivation from last year help win the matchup for LSU. Then the question becomes whether Florida’s offense put up enough points to still pull out a victory.

“We’ll find out,” Mullen said. “I mean, we’ll see. We have some good players, too. So you know? We have some good skill players offensively. We’ll see. I think one thing that we always do as a staff is we try to focus that in the game plan. I’m not going to share whatever our secrets are, but there are times we need to score offensively and we might give up some more points on defense. 

“There’s other times we might try to play ball control, slow the tempo of the game down. One of the things, we don’t always — in our program — we don’t work independently. Usually the plans of the offense, defense and kicking game all kind of mold together into what we want and need to do to be victorious.”

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