Florida showed it is on the path back to competitiveness at the elite level with a hard-fought win at the Swamp against a very tough LSU team. The Gators atoned for a weak effort last year against the Tigers, and continue to put behind them the disappointment of the previous 2 seasons.
The Gator defense carried the day, keeping the Tigers out of the end zone in the first half while the offense struggled to get untracked and out of it’s own way, then slamming the door once Florida finally took the lead late in the 3rd quarter. The front seven were called out most of last season and, while showing improvement in September, finally stood up and punched back against an excellent running team. Solid tackling, sound gap control, and getting a stalemate or better at the LOS most of the game made LSU rely on an unproven QB, and that was the difference in the game. Lerentee McCray, Sharrif Floyd, and Jon Bostic are all playing the best football of their careers. The secondary played physical coverage, and Matt Elam made a statement to be all-SEC or better with an outstanding performance, making plays and physical tackles all over the field along with the play of the game, stripping Odell Beckham after a long reception, ending LSU’s only real threat in the second half. Jaylen Watkins continues to come on as a playmaker with another interception.
Don’t forget the fine play of Florida’s special teams. Kyle Christy continues to impress with solid punting, and the coverage units have been excellent all season. Louichez Purifoy is a standout gunner, and Coach Muschamp singled him out as one of the best he’s ever coached. While Caleb Sturgis did not get the chance to try a FG due to a turnover and some poor pass blocking in LSU territory, he continues to kick off per the coaches strategy, either getting touchbacks or high kicks to the goal line allowing the coverage unit to hold opponents inside the 25-yard line.
The offense cam alive in the second half playing the most basic and physical running game since at least 2009. Credit goes to the staff for staying patient, riding a great defense until the O-Line started to assert itself and soften up perhaps the best D-Line in college football. The improvement in strength and stamina is evident, and credit goes to new S&C coach Jeff Dillman. Credit also goes to OC Brent Pease and OL coach Tim Davis, who devised a great strategy of adding extra tackles and running a lot of counter plays in the second half, allowing Mike Gillislee to announce himself on the national stage as a quality RB……quite a difference from never getting a full chance from either of his previous OCs – the Dazzler and the Cheeseburger.
As I said after the Kentucky game, fans need to be patient with Jeff Driskel as the level of competition rises. He has a long way to go to be proficient in the passing game, but has the physical tools to still make clutch plays in the running game to keep some drives alive. He did take a step back by taking some unnecessary sacks and giving up a fumble deep in Gator territory late in the first half that could have been devastating. But the defense bailed him out and he played smart the rest of the way.
It’s obvious that this year’s offense will continue to rely on a power running game, but I am disappointed by the lack of throws to Jordan Reed, and even short routes to the WRs. Unless this part of the attack improves, there will be some tough games ahead against some offenses that have the talent to score enough points to beat Florida.
Now it’s on the road to Nashville to play Vanderbilt, who is coming off of a nice road win at Missouri. This has “trap game” written all over it, as the team will hear all the accolades all week from the fans and media. The coaching staff, along with the handful of upperclass leaders, have to ground the team and keep them focused on this game. This team has done nothing impressive since 2009, and they will lose a lot of the positive momentum built so far this year if they lay an egg.
James Franklin continues to do good work as Vandy’s head coach, and their defense is considerably improved. Until the Gator offense shows up in the first half, it’s possible this could be another second-half grind. Of course, it would be nice to see the team come out loose and take it to the Commodores early, allowing a lot of backups to get some snaps in the second half and staying healthy for 2 huge games to come.
Until I see the offense open up and get an early lead, though, I have to expect a closer-than-wanted game into the second half.
Prediction: Florida 31 Vanderbilt 16