Let me take you back about a month ago. On October 8th, LSU was scheduled to play Florida in Gainesville at noon. However, plans took a drastic change as the looming presence of Hurricane Matthew forced the SEC to cancel the contest.
There was outrage from everywhere and it all seemed to be directed at the Gators. Tennessee fans complained that Florida had an easier route to win the SEC in lieu of their loss to the Vols. LSU fans complained that Florida was scared of them and just as easily could have flown to Baton Rouge to play the game on that day.
For Florida head coach Jim McElwain, it had to feel like a nightmare. People were valuing a football game over actual human lives being affected by Hurricane Matthew. With more than half of his roster from areas within the hurricane's path, Mac was shocked at the contempt and hate that was casted onto his program.
So Florida gave into the demands of LSU athletic director Joe Alleva. They agreed to pay Presbyterian a $500,000 buyout fee while LSU paid $1.5 million to buyout their scheduled game against South Alabama (5-5).
Within a week, the game had been rescheduled for November 19th in Baton Rouge. Florida had not won there since 2009 (Tim Tebow's senior year) and had lost three straight to the Tigers. By the week of this game, Florida had been struggling offensively while LSU was rolling to a 5-1 record with interim head coach Ed Orgeron.
LSU opened up as a 13.5 point favorite over Florida. Riddled with injuries to the offensive line, quarterback, the linebacking corps, and the secondary, there seemed to be no way Florida could go to Death Valley of all places and win. Tennessee fans were ordering their SEC Championship tickets. Florida had no shot at winning this game. The East had been lost.
Despite this adversity and drama, Florida prevailed. With the help of a historic goal line stand, the Florida Gators walked into Death Valley and beat the then No. 16 ranked LSU Tigers (6-4, 4-3 SEC) by a score of 16-10. They showed the country that they weren't afraid to play anybody and in the process clinched their second consecutive SEC East division title.
With a 1-1 record on the road, graduate transfer quarterback Austin Appleby did enough to manage the game and keep Florida in it going into the fourth quarter. He went 7 for 17 on pass attempts while accumulating 144 passing yards. A chunk of those yards came on a 98-yard strike to Tyrie Cleveland to give the Gators a 10-7 lead in the third quarter.
On the ground, sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett registered a performance that earned him player of the game honors. Rushing 22 times, the St. Thomas Aquinas product gained 108 yards on the ground. He was vital in the fourth quarter as his powerful running kept Florida's drives alive and ultimately led to Eddy Pineiro's go-ahead field goal with 4:37 left in the game.
Complementing Scarlett, true freshman Lamical Perine had some huge carries down the stretch. Although he touched the ball just seven times, a chunk of Perine's 38 yards came on a Marshawn Lynch-esque run that helped put the Gators in position to take the lead late in the game.
In the receiving corps, true freshman Tyrie Cleveland had the only Gator touchdown of the game when Appleby found him streaking down the sideline midway through the third quarter. Cleveland finished the day with three catches for 124 yards and of course the touchdown grab. His performance was enough to earn him SEC Freshman of the Week honors following this game.
As a unit, the Gator offense gained just 270 yards with a chunk of those coming on the ground. The dilapidated offensive line gave up just two sacks and did a great job protecting Appleby and providing holes for Scarlett and Perine to run through. The Gator offense committed one penalty the whole game, and that's when Austin Appleby got hit with delay of game on Florida's first offensive possession.
Defense won this game for the Gators. It's that simple. Before I get into any specific defensive players and stats, I have to talk about "The Stand". The Stand is something that will go down in the history of Gator football. It's a moment that will be seen on the jumbotron before home games and forever immortalized in the concourses of The Swamp.
So here's how it went down. After LSU converted a fourth down and 10, the Tigers had the ball on the 18-yard line with less than two minutes to play. With 50 seconds to go, the Tigers made it first and goal at the Gator seven-yard line when quarterback Danny Etling (a Purdue transfer like Appleby) hit receiver D.J. Chark for 30 yards.
Knowing LSU, they were gonna take the clock all the way down and make sure that Florida got no chance whatsoever to do something on offense. It was all up to Florida's defense. The first goal line play was a two-yard rush from backup running back Derrius Guice. Florida then proceeded to call a timeout with 30 seconds to go. They had two remaining.
On second and goal from the five-yard line, Guice again ran the ball and reached the one-yard line. LSU then called timeout with 24 seconds to go. On third down and goal, the Tigers chose to go to fullback J.D. Moore to try and win the game.
Florida was ready, however, and defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson wrapped up Moore to force fourth down and goal with the game on the line. The clock began running, and Coach Mac made no effort to stop it. Finally with three seconds to go, Coach Orgeron called timeout. This was the game. One yard would decided the Florida Gators' season.
On fourth down and goal, Etling pitched the ball to Derrius Guice. He tried to leap into the end zone but was met by Marcell Harris, CeCe Jefferson, and Taven Bryan. Guice was short of the goal line and fumbled the ball (which didn't matter because only Guice could advance the ball and he was already down). The game was over! The Gators were SEC East champions!
Red Zone DefianceThis was the third time in the game that Florida had denied LSU a touchdown in the red zone. The first time came near the beginning of the second quarter on first and goal from the Florida seven-yard line.
Up 7-3, LSU was looking to extend their lead when Caleb Brantley punched the ball loose from Derrius Guice. Gator linebacker Kylan Johnson quickly fell on the ball to secure Florida's first turnover of the game.
The second time again involved Caleb Brantley as he pulverized Leonard Fournette to set up fourth down and goal in the early stages of the third quarter.
As LSU lined up for their field goal, I told my friends that Florida better watch for the fake because LSU does it to them EVERY YEAR! Sure enough, I was right! Whether or not it was a fake field goal or a mishandled snap, LSU kick holder Josh Growden stepped back a couple yards and heaved up a prayer. He might as well have said "200 alive" when he threw it.
The pass was deflected and ricocheted for a couple seconds, but ultimately fell harmlessly to the turf for a turnover. Those three missed points would come back to haunt LSU when it was all said and done.
What's also worth mentioning is the play before the Fournette wrap-up. On second and goal, Danny Etling tried to scramble for the end zone on a play action rollout. As he approached the end zone, he was viciously met by linebacker Vosean Joseph and shoved out of bounds. It can be argued that this play set the tone for Brantley's subsequent third down stop.
Even though Joseph lit him up, Etling remained clean for most of the game as Florida sacked him just once. The perpetrator of that sack was CeCe Jefferson, who brought Etling down for a nine-yard loss on second and goal from the three-yard line. The timing of this sack was perfect as it came in the beginning of the fourth quarter. LSU would eventually kick a field goal to cap the drive and make it 10-10.
Florida's Defensive PlaymakersFlorida's leading tackler was yet again linebacker David Reese. Anchoring down what many saw as a depleted linebacking core, the true freshman led both his team and the game with 12 tackles (0.5 TFL). Reese's efforts would earn him SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors
Behind Reese, defensive back Marcell Harris paced the Gators with 11 tackles. Another true freshman linebacker rounds out the top three as Kylan Johnson had eight wrap ups.
Three Gators had six tackles with two of those players being defensive backs. They were safety Nick Washington, defensive lineman Jordan Sherit, and cornerback Jalen "Teez" Tabor (who also had a pass breakup).
The defense's performance was quite impressive considering they allowed 423 offensive yards to LSU and were out-possessed 34:02 to 25:58. It did help that Leonard Fournette was used in a limited capacity, but it was no small task to stop Derrius Guice either. Guice scored the game's opening touchdown in the first quarter and finished with 83 yards on 19 carries.
Fournette was given 12 carries despite pregame repots that we would be unavailable for the game. The stingy Florida defense corralled him though, as he gained only 43 yards. LSU fans may wonder for years to come if the outcome would have been different had Fournette been available for the last play of the game.
This was the type of game that kicker Eddy Pineiro was recruited for. The redshirt sophomore was huge today as he nailed all three of his kicks from 36, 26, and 34 out, respectively. As mentioned earlier in the article, Pineiro made two clutch kicks in the fourth quarter.
His first make gave Florida a 13-10 lead and the second pushed that lead to 16-10. His direct impact on this game would earn him SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Pineiro would be responsible for 10 points as a whole in this contest.
Pineiro converted his lone extra point of the game and four of his five kickoffs went for touchbacks. His one kickoff that was not a touchback was a huge turning point for the Gators. With 4:37 left in the game, LSU defensive back Donte Jackson fielded Pineiro's kick inside the 15-yard line and started sprinting upfield.
As he returned the ball, he ran into teammate Clifton Escort III and proceeded to fumble the ball. Vonte Joseph was able to recover the ball and setup Pineiro's second field goal of the quarter.
In the punting game, Johnny Townsend (who was wrongfully snubbed from the Ray Guy Award finalists list) played a critical role in the battle for field position. The redshirt junior punted five times and averaged 52.2 yards per punt. Three of his punts went over 50 yards, with his longest being 59 yards. He pinned LSU inside their own 20-yard line just once.
In the return game, Florida logged no punt returns. On kickoffs, both Jalen Tabor and and Chris Thompson had one return a piece. Tabor took his kick back for 33 yards while Thompson's return was 18 yards.
There really isn't much more to say after all this. Despite getting screwed by the SEC, these Gators found a way! With the win over LSU, they put Coach Mac in the history books as he became the first ever head coach to reach the SEC Championship game in his first two seasons.
This was one for the books. Finally, the three-game losing skid against LSU has ended! This victory propelled Florida to 15th in the College Football Playoff rankings while dropping LSU completely out! In addition, Florida now gets LSU at home for the next two seasons before the series reverts back to its normal home-and-home status.
With the SEC East won, the haters/critics dispatched, and LSU defeated, it's now time to focus on the No. 14 Florida State Seminoles (8-3). Similar to LSU, the Gators have not defeated their in-state rival in three years. As weird as it may sound, they are fortunate to be playing the 'Noles on the road.
In the last two meetings at Doak Campbell Stadium, the Gators have played the Seminoles tough. In 2014 they lost 24-19 and in 2012 they won 37-26. In last year's meeting in Gainesville, it was ugly. Florida State won 27-2 and dominated the Gators in every aspect possible in a football game.
Hopefully Coach Mac uses last year's loss and this slight losing streak as a whole to motivate the Gators come Saturday. If the trend of Florida's schedule continues to holds true, they should win this game.
Florida has won three straight and then lost a game twice this season. Now on the cusp of another three-game winning streak, it makes sense for Florida to beat Florida State and presumably fall to Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) in the SEC Championship.
Let's not worry about Alabama right now, though. In the Sunshine Showdown, I have the Gators emerging victorious to earn their ninth victory of the season. Of course with half the team out due to injury, it will be a close one. However, it will also be a classic game in this historic rivalry. There may be no national title implications, but state pride is always on the forefront when the Gators and 'Noles hookup.
Similar to last year, this game has a primetime slot. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. on ABC this upcoming Saturday. It can be heard on the Gator IMG Sports Network. Let's go Gators!
As for LSU, they hit the road on Thanksgiving Day to take on the Texas A&M Aggies (8-3, 4-3 SEC). Both have recently dropped out of the polls, but I have to give this game to LSU as the Aggies have not beaten them since 1995. Kickoff for this game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and it can be seen on ESPN.
*All stats accredited to FloridaGators.com