Florida continues SEC resurgence with physical upset win over LSU
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease tried to explain his bread-and-butter play during a video-aided information session in May, he never specified a name. "You'd say we ran inside," Pease quipped. In general football circles, the play is called Power, and it requires the backside guard and tackle to pull to the play side to create a convoy of blockers. It isn't fancy. It isn't a trick. On the play side, linemen test their manhood against defenders. If they win, the play gains yards. If the defenders win, it gets stuffed.
Pease runs it from so many formations and personnel groupings that more specificity is often required when quarterback Jeff Driskel calls it in the huddle. Pease may run the play from Chief. He may run it from Sumo. Gators coach Will Muschamp wouldn't reveal the specifics of these groupings Saturday, but he hinted that they include more than the usual five offensive linemen. Still, when he is speaking generally of his favorite concept, Pease does have a catchall term that has caught on among the players.
"We call it God's play," Florida guard James Wilson said with a smile following the Gators' 14-6 upset of LSU. "It's a chance to get our feet in the ground and just muscle up." In Saturday's second half, God's play was the Alpha and the Omega. Florida used it several times during a closing stretch in which the Gators ran on two dozen consecutive plays. It kicked off the stretch late in the third quarter when Pease called for a formation that included seven offensive linemen. Wilson and tackle Xavier Nixon pulled right, and the right side of the line crashed down on LSU's front. Mike Gillislee ran into the end zone untouched from 12 yards out, and the Gators took a one-point lead that seemed insurmountable given Florida's defensive superiority and LSU's offensive issues.
Florida has needed a win like this since Tim Tebow graduated. For two seasons, the Gators have floundered -- especially on offense -- and watched as South Carolina and Georgia surpassed them in the SEC East. But second-year coach Muschamp had pledged to give Florida a blue-collar identity. The former Nick Saban assistant had hoped to build his team the same way Saban built Alabama -- with a python of a defense and a sledgehammer of an offense. In Muschamp's first year, the Gators looked more like a garter snake and a rubber mallet. The most humiliating defeat came in Baton Rouge, where LSU dominated the Gators on both lines of scrimmage, racking up 238 rushing yards against Florida's defense and eight sacks against Florida's offense, and dispelled any notion that Florida could make a quick return to the SEC's elite. "We felt like we were out-physicaled and out-toughed last year," Florida guard Jon Halapio said. "We definitely didn't want that feeling again."
For a half, it seemed Florida's offensive line might trudge out of The Swamp with heads hung low. The Gators gained a measly 47 yards in the first 30 minutes, and Driskel spent much of the half buried under LSU defensive linemen or blitzing linebackers such as Kevin Minter, who sacked Driskel on consecutive plays in the second quarter. In Florida's locker room at halftime, there was no such concern. Driskel had coughed up a fumble on a Bennie Logan sack, and LSU's Barkevious Mingo had recovered at the Florida seven-yard line. Florida's defense then stoned LSU defense for three consecutive plays, sniffing out and snuffing a Tebow-esque jump pass from fullback J.C. Copeland so quickly that Copeland didn't even bother throwing the ball. LSU kicked a field goal to go up 6-0, but Muschamp knew his defense would keep the Gators in the game and the offense would eventually break through.
At halftime, Muschamp and Pease discussed using the running game to open up the passing game. "We needed to run the ball first," Muschamp said, "and then we'll move to other things." So in the third quarter, the Gators started running. "We didn't really have to go to those other things," Muschamp said.
In the first half, Florida averaged 0.7 yards a carry. In the second, that average jumped to 4.7. The second number isn't gaudy, but when offense comes at such a premium, each yard can feel like an acre. "It's like a brick wall mentality," center Jonotthan Harrison said. "If you keep hammering at the brick wall, eventually it's going to go down." Gillislee finished with 146 yards and scored both of Florida's touchdowns. He didn't offer any scintillating quotes after the game, but his T-shirt -- which read "DAMN I'M GOOD" -- said it all.
LSU, which hadn't lost a regular-season game since Nov. 27, 2010 at Arkansas, fell with a mighty crash. The Tigers' vaunted defensive line eventually buckled as it kept getting pounded by God's play. "Everybody was just finishing blocks," Halapio said. "Pancakes here, pancakes there. Knockouts here, knockouts there." Said Harrison: "We were defeating LSU's will."
Of course, LSU's offense offered no help. While much credit should go to Florida's defense, LSU's lack of offensive identity and poor quarterback play was baffling from a team that looked poised to defend its SEC title a month ago when it routed Washington. But injuries along the offensive line and quarterback Zach Mettenberger's troubles adjusting to the speed of SEC defenses have left LSU a mess. Against Florida, even the Tigers' usually steady running game failed them. LSU ran for only 42 yards.
Even on the rare occasions LSU succeeded on offense, the Tigers failed. Mettenberger, under heavy pressure, squeezed off a pass down the right sideline to Odell Beckham Jr. with LSU trailing 7-6 in the third quarter. Beckham gained 56 yards, but at the end of the play, Florida safety Matt Elam stripped the ball. Officials ruled Beckham was out of bounds when the ball came loose, but Florida's assistants in the press box radioed down to Muschamp and told him to tell the officials to look at the play again. Sure enough, a review showed Beckham had fumbled. Florida got the ball at the LSU 23-yard line, called God's play -- as well as a few others -- and marched 77 yards in 11 running plays to tack on a touchdown and put the game out of reach. "I think our football team is sick," LSU coach Les Miles said. "Sick with the knowledge that they could have played better."
Muschamp knew he couldn't celebrate too long Saturday. Though Florida's second-half ground dominance was impressive, the Gators will have to get better on offense if they hope to win the SEC East. Still, if Florida never puts up West Virginia numbers, Muschamp won't sulk. "I like winning," Muschamp said. "If we win 41-40, I'm going to be really, really happy. Because I like winning. When I was a coordinator, I grabbed the stat sheet the first thing and said, 'Man, we gave up this many yards rushing.' [Now] I care about winning. How we win is gratifying to me because of the way we lost games last year, quite frankly. I know we've made improvements in the organization. From where I sit, I've got to see improvement. You're either getting better or worse."
Florida is getting better. LSU is getting worse. That may only be a temporary situation, or Saturday may have signaled a more dramatic shift. With each playing high-flying South Carolina in the next two weeks, we'll know better where each team stands. "When you continue to climb the mountain," Muschamp said, "those steps get a little more treacherous." LSU's fall seems so dramatic because the Tigers had climbed so high. Meanwhile, it seems that for the first time in the post-Tebow era, the Gators have the tools to keep ascending.