Mississippi St. Review / LSU Preview

Florida got another important SEC road win, defeating MSU in a tough, low-scoring affair that showed the development of some mental and physical toughness. The team showed focus, blocking out all the hype around the game concerning Dan Mullen’s return to Starkville, and embraced the grind of a hard-fought victory. This was the most complete team effort of the season. All that talk in the offseason from MSU’s players and fans about how they are better off now has been exposed. Florida has had to suffer long enough with these kinds of issues – it’s time to leave them behind and let other programs deal with them.

On offense, the playbook was pared down to only a handful of base plays that spread the field sideline-to-sideline to offset the strength of the Bulldog’s defense, their D-line. While the final statistics weren’t gaudy, there was enough production by the running game to complement a short passing game that kept the chains moving and gave the defense a chance to rest. The O-line had his best performance of the season to date. They benefitted from the quick throws, only allowing 1 sack and few QB pressures, and got enough push in the run game to open some lanes for some key first downs on long drives. Franks was solid for the most part, making some quick throws on the WR screens and some strong throws when needed on slants and digs. This limited the number of reads he had to make to help him get rid of the ball quickly to avoid the rush. The WRs stepped up with some tough catches over the middle and hard running after the catch. Swain, Grimes, and Jefferson all showed toughness – not just with their pass-catching, but also in their blocking on the WR screens and running plays. Perine is making a push to be the starting RB, again having success both in the run and pass game. Scarlett continues to miss holes and lacks the explosiveness of 2016. Pierce got some important carries in the 4th quarter and continues to impress. And……finally…..Toney got some touches early, breaking off 2 nice runs from the wildcat formation and hitting the option pass for the winning TD. He has to continue to be incorporated more into the offense.

The Gator defense also had it’s best performance of the year. 6 sacks, constant pressure on the pocket, decent run defense against a strong opponent, and solid pass coverage (less one blown play that should have resulted in a TD for MSU). The DEs made life miserable for Nick Fitzgerald all night in the passing game, and the DTs and LBs shored up their zone-read fits in the second half to force the Bulldogs to pass more often than they like. Polite and Zuniga were terrors off the edge, the LBs tackled well in space, and the secondary covered for the early loss of Dean to an unwarranted targeting ejection. MSU wanted nothing to do with CJH’s side of the field all night, forcing Edwards and McWilliams into the spotlight. They fared well overall but still had a few busted assignments that have to be corrected. The return of Shawn Davis at safety really filled a gaping hole – he made some big plays early to show the Bulldogs the middle of the field wasn’t going to be as open as previous Gator games this season. Finally, CGJ has become the leader of the secondary, getting them lined up properly and really improving his open-field tackling to lead by example.

It’s on to Alleva Bowl 3 – the rubber game in the grudge match that resulted from LSU AD Joe Alleva’s whining back in 2016 about travelling to Florida with Hurricane Matthew not far away – forcing the Gators into a second straight game at Baton Rouge in which Florida won the East with a goal line stand as time expired. Sadly, the Tigers got the last laugh in 2017, beating the Swamp Donkey in the first of 2 straight games in Gainesville. LSU comes in undefeated and riding high, with two wins over Top 20 opponents away from home already on their resume. This is by far Florida’s toughest test so far this season.

The Tigers were fortunate to land QB Joe Burrow, who transferred in from Ohio St. In only a few months he has proved more than competent, showing toughness and poise along with surprising running ability. His overall passing statistics aren’t great, but he has been clutch in key moments and has won his teammates over. LSU is still a running team first, lead by a solid O-line and RB Nick Brossette, who did not start until now, his senior year. The difference in their offense now vs. the past few seasons is that they mix in the pass more often on first down, with WRs Justin Jefferson and former Gator commit Ja’Marr Chase providing targets with good size and speed. Florida’s DTs will have to get at least a stalemate inside to slow the running game, while the DEs have to find a way to continue their recent excellent pass rushing on must-pass downs. Getting Dean back will be a boost to the secondary at CB – he and CJH will be challenged by the size and speed of LSU’s WRs, and have to play their best game to date. The safeties will likely be required to help in run support, but whoever is left behind in coverage has to tackle well in space to prevent big plays. The Tigers really like working the middle of the field with slants and square-ins, so everyone in the secondary will need to be physical and try to get the WRs off of their routes.

The Gator offense really needs to find a way to run the ball effectively, as the LSU secondary may be the best one they will see all season. Passing the ball with efficiency could be a real struggle given the occasional issues with the O-line and RBs in pass pro and the inconsistent reads and accuracy from Franks. The Gators did run the ball well in the second half of last year’s game with the Tigers and the past few weeks of this season, but another slow start really lessens an already narrow margin for success. It will be interesting to see if Perine gets more carries, and if Toney is used to get to the edges to try and spread out a very good LSU LB corps led by all-SEC candidate Devin White. The O-line has to eliminate the stupid penalties that have hampered the offense and get some push, or it will be a long afternoon. I really liked how the RBs were involved in the passing game last week, and that would be a big help again to keep the defense honest and prevent them from stacking the box. Florida’s WRs will also face their biggest challenge to date against an excellent LSU secondary led by safety Grant Delpit and CB Greedy Williams. The Tiger secondary will be motivated to show out in their annual feud with the Gators about who really is DBU. The WRs have to get some separation to help Franks, and I expect they will again be asked to make some tough catches in the middle of the field. I’m not sure how well a repeat of the MSU game plan with the quick screens to the WRs will work against LSU’s defensive speed and physical CBs. There may be a few opportunities to fake a screen and try for a deep ball, now that LSU has seen so many short throws on film.

Florida’s special teams need to continue their excellent play. Points may be at a premium, so McPherson has to make any reasonable FG attempts he gets. Townsend will be called upon to flip the field with his punts, and hopefully he can continue his success in pinning the opponent inside the 20 when presented the opportunity. The coverage units have also been playing well, and have to keep it going. In a close game against a strong opponent, a big play by this unit could be the difference.

This is the biggest recruiting weekend of the season for Florida, and the Gators really need to put on a good performance to help get some key recruits off the fence and committed. It will be a wild scene at the Swamp for this one, and hopefully the team continues to show improvement in execution and toughness, no matter the outcome. The win at MSU has to provide a confidence boost for the players. LSU has already been tested and had success against some quality opponents, so they will not be intimidated by this game. Gator Nation really wants this game badly to stick it to LSU for their childish actions back in 2016 and a bitter home defeat in 2017, but I don’t know if the running game and Franks’ passing ability are far enough along to win the day in what I expect will be another close battle with the Tigers. I feel Florida’s best chance in this one is to not be forced to play from behind, and applying early pressure on LSU by getting the lead. I just hope the Gators don’t come in too hyped and commit a slew of mistakes that takes them out of it early. It will require a complete effort from all 3 phases – the potential is there, but I’m just not sure this team is quite ready yet.

Prediction: LSU 23 Florida 20

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