Florida fell short to LSU 42-28 in a closely-contested game at Tiger Stadium Saturday night. The Gators stood toe-to-toe with the Tigers until midway through the 4th quarter, when Kyle Trask made his only real mistake of the game, an end-zone interception midway through the 4th quarter that prevented the Gators from tying the game at 35 and subsequently allowing the Tigers to add on an insurance score for the final margin.
The offense was terrific all night. Dan Mullen called a great game, and Trask was efficient and accurate in leading the Gators on four touchdown drives of over 70 yards. The Gators held the ball for over 38 minutes, ran 30 plays more than the Tigers, and ran the ball for over 100 yards. Florida’s WRs rose to the challenge, outplaying LSU’s secondary all night. Kyle Pitts was a monster in the first half with 8 catches, Van Jefferson was the main target in the second half making two great TD catches against physical coverage, and Trevon Grimes and Freddie Swain also made some clutch catches in the middle of the field. Once again it was tough sledding for the O-Line, but they opened just enough room for Lamical Perine to grind out some important first downs to extend drives and provide some balance. Backup QB Emory Jones had a few good moments, but Mullen’s playcalling for his selected series was surprisingly conservative, unlike the package he had against Auburn. Jones was mostly a runner, and only threatened the defense with 2 passes over 10 yards beyond the LOS. The O-Line finally broke down in the 4th quarter, allowing some drive-ending sacks.
Sadly, the great performance by the offense in a hostile environment was offset by a truly horrid performance by the defense, who allowed over 500 yards and 42 points on only 49 offensive plays. It is puzzling to see the CBs continually play off of the WRs, allowing QB Joe Burrow and LSU’s own set of excellent WRs an easy night of pitch-and-catch. But what became the real back-breaker was allowing LSU over 200 yards in the running game, including multiple plays of over 20 yards. The run support (or lack of) by safety Brad Stewart and the LB corps (less David Reese) was shockingly bad – bad angles, weak tackling, and simply not being in the proper position to make plays. It did not help that Florida was without it’s two best DEs in Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, who each only played a handful of snaps before being forced out with recurring ankle injuries. However, this doesn’t excuse the rest of the defensive unit, who were embarrassed all night. A handful of young guys had to be plugged in more often than the staff wished, and also the D-Line had to be shuffled, which created some physical mismatches that the Tigers were able to exploit. But some of the fault lies directly with DC Todd Grantham, who continues to allow soft coverage, and also the front seven had another of it’s alarming breakdowns against the run.
Now the players and staff have to regroup and focus on South Carolina, who is coming off of a stunning upset of Georgia in Athens. The Gamecocks have a tough defense that will be another physical challenge for Florida’s struggling O-Line, and once again Mullen will have to scheme around them and try and provide Trask a game plan that allows him time to throw. His performance at LSU should be a huge confidence-builder for him and also for the rest of the offense as they are seeing how cool under fire he is, along with his toughness. Carolina is led by DT Javon Kinlaw, LB Ernest Jones, and CB Israel Mukuamu. Any defense coached by Won’t Misschump and Travaris Robinson will be fundamentally sound. Mullen knows this, and once again has the challenge of developing a game plan that is patient and efficient, knowing the limitations of the O-Line. It will be another struggle for the running game, and the passing game again has to take the lead and hopefully open up the things for the running game.
The Lamecocks are hoping QB Ryan Hilinski can play after exiting the first half at Georgia with a knee sprain. If he struggles early or can’t go, they will have to play 3rd-team QB Dakereon Joyner, who has almost no experience and will severely limit their passing game. Carolina will try to run the ball with Rico Dowdle and Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster to protect either QB, with the occasional deep throw to WR Bryan Edwards, by far their most dangerous offensive threat. If the Gator defense can bracket Edwards and refocus on tightening up the run defense, they should be able to hold Carolina in check for most of the afternoon and give the offense the chance to score enough points to get out of Columbia with a critical win. There is a lot to see on the LSU film that should make the Gator defense sick to watch, and should give them the incentive to come out and show they are much better than they were last week.
Coach Mullen is right – this is the most important game of the season coming up, to go into the bye week with confidence and the opportunity to rest and get the injured guys as ready as they can for the final SEC East push in November. I don’t expect Greenard or Zuniga to play this week unless absolutely necessary, and even by Nov. 2 they may still not be 100% for the Georgia game. It will be interesting to see if the Florida staff can rally the team emotionally for one more big game – always a challenge with college players. This would be an easier assignment if the game were at the Swamp, but it’s another SEC road trip into a hostile environment. We’ll see if Carolina is still emotionally hung over from their upset win at Georgia. I actually like the fact this is another one of those snoozer noon kickoffs, where the home team and fans are usually slow to get into the flow of the game. If the Gators play hard and protect the football, they have enough to get out of Columbia with a win……and I don’t care how ugly it might be.
Prediction – Florida 23 South Carolina 17