Florida reawakened the Swamp with it’s most important win in 3 years, outlasting LSU in what has become a typical close battle between the Gators and Tigers. This was no cheap victory – this came against a tough and well-coached team that came in with a solid resume and playing with confidence. Hopefully this win resonates with not just the fan base, but with recruits as well – showing that the foundation is being laid for a bright future after the darkness of the Misschump and Swamp Donkey eras.
To win a game like this all 3 phases of the team have to play well (and they did), but I have to give the edge to the defense. After giving up a quick and shockingly easy TD drive to open the game, the defense dug in and ramped up it’s intensity for the rest of the afternoon. Other than that first drive and then the two big runs allowed on LSU’s last scoring drive in the 4th quarter, Florida controlled the action for most of the game. Tackling was the best it’s been all season, with defenders making plays in space all over the field. The D-line did get gashed for some long runs, but held it’s own against a quality O-line while proving it is one of the elite pass-rushing units in the country. Polite, Zuniga, and Jefferson harassed Joe Burrow all game long and came up with 5 sacks and some key holding calls on the Tigers. The tackle rotation still has some issues with more physical teams, and will have to find ways to counter that with slants and simply tougher play. The LB corps had by far it’s best day under the new staff. Joseph had his best game as a Gator with 14 tackles, 3.5 for loss, while Reese was filling gaps inside against a tough LSU running game. The run fits continue to improve, and there were better pursuit angles on the edges. The secondary had a good day overall, highlighted by Stewart’s pick-6 that iced the win. LSU rarely challenged CJH, preferring to pick on McWilliams whenever he was in the game, and also going after Dean. These guys have to pick up their game going forward, as opponents will continue to attack them until they prove they can cover. Finally, CGJ had a career day, directing the secondary while flying around and making plays in the backfield, against screens, and even in coverage. When the secondary looks at the film, they will see some areas for improvement. The Tigers had some open WRs on their last two possessions, even against nickel and dime looks, but fortunately there were some key drops that thwarted those drives. Improvement, but still work to do.
Florida’s offense was a mixed bag – either very good or very bad. 4 scoring drives, including the go-ahead TD after LSU took the lead, mixed in with 7 drives of 6 plays or less, including 5 3-and-outs. While Franks and the O-line had their struggles and ugly moments, at least they were opportunistic. These guys would have folded under the previous staff, but are developing the mental toughness to push through difficult circumstances. The run blocking is noticeably improved when Heggie is in the game at guard, and it’s becoming obvious that when the Gators need important yards they run to the right behind him and Taylor. The running game came through to provide balance, and gained 2 critical first downs after being pinned down at the 3-yard line late in the game. This allowed the punt team flip the field and make LSU put a long drive together to try and get in position for a winning FG. Perine scored 2 TDs and had some big runs off of the speed option, while Scarlett got the tough yards in close quarters in the 4th quarter. The WRs made some contested catches, battling against an excellent LSU secondary. There wasn’t much separation, so coming down with some 50/50 balls was key. I was disappointed that the RBs weren’t included in the passing game. Franks cannot afford to repeat his terrible decision-making in throwing the end zone interception early in the 3rd quarter that changed the complexion of the game. Overall, the offense continues to make incremental progress, which is a good sign. Finally, Mullen has shown an excellent touch in play-calling in the red zone, coming up with plays that are resulting in TDs instead of FGs.
The special teams were again solid. Townsend was able to pin down the Tigers with some great punts, but struggled when the tried the rugby-style kicks – he needs to shelve that and simply kick in rhythm. McPherson had no FG opportunities, but only had one kickoff returned – after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Stewart’s pick-6 – but even then his kick was deep enough to force LSU to have to convert on a long drive.
Next up is Vanderbilt. The Gators travel to Music City on a roll, and hopefully continue to show improvement and not rest on their recent success.
The Commodores are struggling right now, and coming off of a beatdown at Georgia. Their offense has been mostly one-dimensional this year, relying on the passing of Kyle Shurmur to WR Kilija Lipscomb. As long as the Gator defense doesn’t slip back into bad habits against the run, they should be able to force Vandy to throw and continue their sack barrage. Shurmur is a big QB and hard to bring down, but if the defense can get some hits on him early, his accuracy will fall dramatically and give the Gator offense more possessions. Florida’s D-line should have a decided advantage.
Vandy’s defense has been weak against the run, so I’m expecting a lot of carries for Scarlett and Perine. Pierce should get some as well, as Mullen went with his experienced RBs against LSU for pass pro. The Commodore secondary is nothing like LSU’s, so the short passes to the WRs should be more available to take pressure off of Franks. There will be opportunities for some big plays if the O-line continues to improve and Franks makes the proper reads. He has to improve his accuracy in order to extend drives and give the defense some rest. This is an opportunity for the entire offense to work on becoming more efficient.
Defense and special teams travel, so as long as there isn’t an unexpected dropoff, those units should make it easier to get another SEC road win.
Now we get to see if Florida can handle success. Mullen and the rest of the staff have a big challenge in getting the players refocused and continuing to emphasize consistency and effort. This is another important step in the transformation of the program. This team isn’t good enough to overcome lack of execution and sloppy play, so here is an opportunity to prove to themselves they are indeed working their way back to the Gator Standard. Historically, Vanderbilt plays Florida close more often than not no matter the circumstances, and I think they will hang around at least into the second half. After 3 big SEC wins, it’s time to grind through the mental and physical fatigue and get another victory before enjoying an off week. It was an exhilarating win against LSU, but that has to be immediately set aside by the team to move forward to potentially some bigger things.
Prediction: Florida 27 Vanderbilt 20