Florida vs. LSU score, takeaways: Major changes needed as Gators again get embarrassed by Tigers

By Adam Silverstein
October 16, 2021
Florida vs. LSU score, takeaways: Major changes needed as Gators again get embarrassed by Tigers
Football

Image Credit: GatorsFB on Twitter

It appeared as if the Florida Gators had turned a corner under head coach Dan Mullen. Florida had started 29-6 under Mullen with consecutive victories in New Year’s Six bowl games, and it was in the midst of a record-setting offensive season on the way to the SEC Championship Game against Alabama for a shot at the College Football Playoff. And then, out of nowhere, the sixth-ranked Gators shockingly lost at home, 37-34, to the unranked and undermanned LSU Tigers thanks to three turnovers, a thrown shoe and an overall weak effort.

Sans the shoe, the result Saturday at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was eerily similar. No. 20 Florida lost 49-42 to LSU thanks to four interceptions and one of the worst defensive performances in program history. The Gators fell to 4-3 (2-3 SEC) on the season and are not only 4-6 overall since that 2020 LSU game but 2-6 against Power Five opponents.

If that on its own does not tell you that wholesale changes are needed throughout this Florida football program, perhaps nothing will. The Gators saw each of their quarterbacks throw two picks Saturday, the second for redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson marring an otherwise breakout performance.

Florida was also beat at its own game on the ground with its third-ranked rushing attack completely silenced by an LSU defense missing six starters, including both defensive ends and both cornerbacks.

Where do the Gators go from here? Let’s take a look at what went down Saturday during Florida’s embarrassing loss at LSU, against which it has fallen over nine of the last 12 meetings.

1. Time has come for Todd Grantham: We start with a reminder that the Gators defense has actually improved massively from last season. Granted, there was nowhere to go but up, yet it is still necessary to state that off the top. Florida was ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense and 30th in total defense entering the Saturday’s game. And then all of a sudden, the dam broke as LSU absolutely gashed the visitors on the ground with power runs and the same counter play over and again. The result was one of the worst defensive performances against the run in program history.

LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price rumbled for 287 yards rushing, which not only set a Tigers program record but is the most the Gators have ever surrendered to a single player. The man who previously held that distinction? College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Herschel Walker.  Florida’s defense had allowed 321 yards rushing over the last four games before giving up 327 yards to LSU on Saturday. The fact that it initially struggled is not the issue; rather, it’s that the Gators never adjusted.

And that is squarely on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. LSU entered the game averaging 83.3 yards rushing per game, third-worst in the nation (127th); in other words, the Tigers were four times (!) more successful running the ball against the Gators than every other team they’ve played, combined.

LSU’s 49 points were the most it has ever scored in 67 meetings against Florida, and the 91-point final total was the largest in series history.

Davis-Price’s 287 yards came with three touchdowns, including a 40-yard breakaway. He was the bell cow with 36 carries, and LSU put the game away late in the fourth quarter by running nine times right through the teeth of UF’s defense on a 10-play touchdown drive, scoring with a passing play on fourth-and-goal at the 1 for the final points of the game. The Tigers also had runs of 21 and 25 yards on a touchdown drive to open the fourth quarter.

Grantham had no answers, and Mullen was not apt to criticize him after the game, largely refusing to address whether he would consider removing Grantham from his post by noting that he would be evaluating things as always after the game and during the bye week. Mullen’s inability to provide honest perspective after games is maddening, but it’s also not indicative that no changes are coming.

There was perhaps no greater indictment of the defensive scheme than answers provided by junior linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, who sat in front of reporters after the game. Asked if he was confident in Grantham’s defensive schemes, Diabate said, “I’m confident in my teammates’ ability to play hard.” He later said the defense “made the adjustments we were given to make” and did what it was told. “When the general asks me to shoot, I shoot. I don’t ask questions,” he said, according to Gator Territory’s Nick de la Torre.

Calling for coaches to be fired is largely unnecessary as it is neither the fans nor the media who make such decisions; however, it is important to point out when a coach’s job performance has reached a crisis point. That’s what Grantham has reached. Florida cannot move forward with him calling the defense, and Mullen will be actively putting his job at risk by keeping Grantham in charge of the defense.

Some may say Mullen’s job is already at risk. That’s unlikely barring a complete collapse down the stretch. Not only did Mullen just sign a contract extension, he’s close with the athletic director, and his early success with the Gators — complete offensive turnaround, included — is undoubted. But this is a potential turning point for him and Florida. Either he smartens up and realizes changes must be made on defense — along with other facets of the program not suitable for a post-game story, namely recruiting — or it will be Mullen himself on the hot seat entering the 2022 season.

2. Time has come for a new QB1: There was a lot of bad football played by the Gators on Saturday, and the quarterbacks deserve their heaping share of blame for putting their team in massive deficits time and again. Richardson and redshirt junior Emory Jones combined to throw four interceptions, though it was the two from Jones that hurt the most.

The first came with LSU already leading 7-6 in the second quarter as Jones threw short of redshirt sophomore wide receiver Trent Whittemore; the Tigers picked the ball off on a tip drill and returned it 54 yards, scoring from 28 yards out on the next play. It was LSU’s first turnover in three games, and Whittemore did not return after being injured on the turnover.

On the next offensive play, Richardson threw an interception that LSU immediately converted into points, spotting the hosts a 21-6 lead with 21 unanswered points in 8:38 of game clock. It was the first time UF threw interceptions on consecutive plays since 2011.

Florida closed the first half strong — more on that in a moment — and had a chance to tie the game on the opening series of the second half. Instead, Jones threw a 37-yard pick six to put the Tigers ahead 28-13. It was his ninth interception of the season (compared to nine passing touchdowns), giving him the second-most nationally behind a Marshall quarterback who has thrown 100 more passes comparatively. Jones’ nine interceptions are the most in a full season for a Florida quarterback since Jeff Driskel in 2010, and Jones has only played seven games.

Richardson’s second interception, a terrible sky-high throw off his back foot under pressure that should never have been attempted, came on the Gators’ last offensive series and cost them an opportunity to tie the game. That marred what was otherwise an exemplary performance from Richardson, who entered in relief of Jones after the latter’s pick six to start the second half.

Still, Richardson led Florida on four straight touchdown drives of 75, 75, 65 and 75 yards. The Gators’ 22-point third quarter, including a two-point conversion, was its highest-scoring quarter of the season. he completed 10 of 19 passes for 167 yards with three touchdowns passing plus one rushing, a two-point conversion and 37 more yards on the ground. The first interception could be forgiven; the last one was unacceptable.

Jones had his moments, too. Most notably, he led a five-play, 77-yard touchdown drive with just 29 seconds left in the first half. It was capped by a 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown to redshirt junior WR Justin Shorter (six receptions, 113 yards, two TD). Jones also reentered for a play during Richardson’s final scoring drive to convert an impressive 18-yard pass to Shorter on third-and-16. Richardson injured his finger and sat out for a play.

Despite all of that, Richardson outplayed Jones again. Not only due to the turnovers but simply because of his patience in the pocket (most of the time) and playmaking ability. Richardson had massive gains with his arm and legs. He was simply more dynamic. It’s clear that either quarterback is going to make mistakes; at this point, it’s up to Mullen to realize he needs to go with the one that can also make more game-changing plays in 2021 and help the team take a step forward in 2022.

3. Time has come for Mullen to change: Like the first takeaway, let’s start with the positives, the changes Mullen actually made Saturday. At times, he decided to be aggressive offensively, including opening the play book once Richardson entered the game. Most notable was Mullen’s decision to call timeouts and force the ball down the field to end the first half. That resulted in seven points for Florida with an opportunity to double up after half.

Maddeningly, it was exactly why Mullen was so harshly criticized for not doing the same thing with a shorter field and nearly five times as much game clock at Kentucky a couple weeks ago. In fact, his decision to force the issue Saturday made that call even worse.

It also came after Mullen’s lack of aggressiveness directly bit the Gators in their collective ass over the first 29:31. Florida opened the game with three straight drives starting at the UF 41-yard-line or better. The Gators held the Tigers to 25 yards on their first 11 plays, and the 2020 Florida team probably would have led 21-0 at the end of the first quarter.

Instead, Mullen ran and ran and ran … right into LSU’s hands. UF wound up with six points (due to a missed extra point) on those three possessions. The first and third possession resulted in a combined 4 yards gained. The Tigers put together a solid game plan focused on selling out to stop the run, forcing the Gators out of their comfort zone offensively. Florida, which entered as the third-best rushing offense in the nation, only finished with 138 yards on the ground — just 66 of which came from running backs.

Lacking success on the ground made Mullen uncomfortable, and his dedication to the run put Florida in a tough spot as it was unable to take advantage of the aforementioned field position. It also led to an over-reliance on the pass across the two ensuing series, both of which ended with interceptions.

There were bright spots in his play calling, though. Whittemore had a fantastic 22-yard throw-back pass to Jones in the first quarter. Richardson ran a double fake play for a 27-yard pass to senior running back Dameon Pierce, who scored two more touchdowns on 79 total yards for the day. Richardson also hit redshirt senior tight end Kemore Gamble (64 yards) on a few unique plays, and an end-around for redshirt junior Jacob Copeland (53 yards, TD) resulted in a 19-yard gain.

Did Mullen pull plays out of the book he was saving for Georgia? Perhaps. Does that excuse Florida being so vanilla at points throughout the season given these plays were in its arsenal? Not at all, especially as a two-loss team. Mullen is too good historically as an offensive coach to be so conservative.

And by the way, when we talk about Mullen changing, it’s not just what he does on the field. His I-can-do-no-wrong personality has become tiresome to outsiders, and perhaps even worse, it’s not accurate. It’s one thing when a coach like Nick Saban asks for the benefit of the doubt. Mullen deserved that after those first 35 games. He certainly does not after the last 10.

4. Odds and ends: Redshirt senior WR Jordan Pouncey blocked a punt in the first quarter, the first for Florida in 26 games spanning two years … graduate kicker Jace Christmann had an extra point blocked; it’s the second time the Gators have missed one this season … Florida is 4-6 in its last 10 games, 2-6 against Power Five opponents … the Gators fell to 33-32-3 all-time against the Tigers with a 17-18 mark in Baton Rouge … LSU has now defeated UF in nine of the last 12 meetings since 2010 and four of the last five in Death Valley … under Mullen, Florida is now 24-5 when scoring first, 7-9 when being outrushed, 6-7 in games decided by 10 points or less and 25-5 against unranked opponents … the Gators have scored 24+ points in 32 of their last 36 games … UF has not committed a penalty in the last five quarters … Florida has scored in 417 consecutive games, an NCAA record

5. What it means: Changes are necessary. Not just in terms of leadership on both the defensive and offensive ends but full sail throughout the entire program. Mullen promised to reestablish “The Gator Standard” upon joining the program, and he did exactly that through the first 35 games. But there’s no questioning that Florida has slid massively over the last 10. There are some, for lack of a better term, excusable losses in there — namely the two against Alabama — but the two defeats against LSU are nonsensical, and the penalty-ridden performance at Kentucky was nonsensical.

Perhaps most maddening is this: Every time the Gators fix one thing, something else falls apart. As noted in the “odds and ends” above, Florida has not suffered a penalty through five quarters — there were 0 penalty yards in this LSU game. Yet, its previously strong defense completely fell apart. The passing game got going with Richardson and some tremendous protection from the offensive line, yet the running game was non-existent.

6. What’s next? Florida enters a bye week looking to regroup ahead of its annual rivalry game with No. 1 Georgia on Saturday, Oct. 30. The game will air live at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS. The Gators ended a three-game losing streak to the Bulldogs last season but limp into this year’s meeting as they look to avoid their worst loss in the series since 2017.

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