All week, the message Jim McElwain preached to his team was finishing the season 6-0 in the Swamp- even if that Swamp was moved a few hundred miles west.
And after a tense negotiation process to reschedule the biggest game of the season, LSU let the Gators feel right at home.
Thanks to a 98 yard touchdown pass from Austin Appleby to freshman Tyrie Cleveland, a big day on the ground from Jordan Scarlett and a slew of LSU miscues, Florida waltzed into Baton Rouge and came away with a 16-10 victory. The win puts Florida in Atlanta, of course- cry your eyes out, Tennessee fans- and gives McElwain the notable distinction of being the first coach to ever take a team to the SEC Championship Game in each of his first two years.
That’s some feat given the way the season played out.
An early loss to Tennessee put the Vols in the driver’s seat, and had many questioning the future of this team. And the way Florida struggled in some of its ensuing games against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Arkansas probably didn’t do a lot to assuage the fears that Florida wouldn’t repeat as division champions, either- even as Tennessee began to fall apart.
Then came the LSU game. You know, the game that was scheduled to be played in Gainesville back in October, but was then postponed due to Hurricane Matthew. And because LSU athletic director Joe Alleva refused to play the game in Gainesville as the SEC declared they had to, Florida had no choice but to go along with his demand to play in Baton Rouge. SEC teams have to play all eight scheduled conference games in order to be eligible for the conference championship, and so Florida either had to comply with the fascist’s orders or lose its shot at repeating as division champs.
But McElwain made sure his players knew where this game was supposed to be played, and challenged them to continue to defend their home turf. And they did.
Florida started the game on its own 40 after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on LSU, and picked up a couple of first downs before being forced to punt. LSU then drove right down the field and scored on a short run from Derrius Guice. Those two drives ate up the entire first quarter, and it felt as though the Tigers were in control. That remained the feeling as Florida’s next drive reached the red zone but stalled, and Eddy Pineiro kicked a field goal. And that feeling only heightened when LSU drove all the way down the field again and appeared poised to score another touchdown.
But the entire complexion of the game changed when Caleb Brantley stuck a paw into Guice’s body and poked the football free. Florida recovered to end the LSU drive. And though neither team scored again in the half, it just felt like an entirely different game.
LSU seemed to retake the momentum on its first drive of the second half, marching right back into the red zone with surprising ease. But Florida’s defense came up with two more game changing plays in succession. On a second and goal from the 3, LSU quarterback Danny Etling took off for the pylon and appeared to have a touchdown when linebacker Vosean Joseph came out of nowhere and leveled him at the one inch line, sending him flying out of bounds clearly short of the goal line. And on the next play, Brantley blew past the line and dropped Guice for a loss. That set up a short field goal attempt- which LSU botched on the hold. And again, Florida survived the threat having given up no points.
This time, though, the Gators made LSU pay. Austin Appleby lobbed a rainbow to Tyrie Cleveland, who caught it at his own 40, shook off LSU cornerback Donte Jackson and trotted the remaining 60 yards for an unbelievable- and unbelievably easy- 98 yard touchdown. And incredibly, Florida had the lead.
LSU responded with the tying field goal with 12:18 to go, but then Florida got the ball back and started to drive. On the backs of Jordan Scarlett- the first running back to rush for over 100 yards against LSU all year- and LaMical Perine, the Gators got down inside the LSU one yard line, eating up nearly eight minutes of clock in doing so. A questionable third and goal play call by Doug Nussmeier to pitch the ball backwards instead of having the large bodied Appleby try to sneak it in from a few inches away failed miserably, and Florida was forced to kick a field goal with four and a half minutes left. The Tigers then fumbled the ensuing kickoff and gave Florida the opportunity to put the game away, but they couldn’t take advantage of that either and Pineiro kicked another field goal to make it 16-10 with 3:24 remaining.
That gave LSU one more shot, and set up a classic championship moment. If Florida kept LSU out of the end zone, they’d be division champs. If LSU scored a touchdown and made the extra point, the division would be turned back over to Tennessee. It was that simple. This Gator team had its moments that made fans question it all year long, but it all came down to one final drive.
And LSU appeared dead in the water on that final drive until Etling hit DJ Chark for 32 yards on a fourth and ten to put the ball at the Gators’ 16. The Tigers then picked up another first down to set up a first and goal with under a minute left.
Time for a brief aside. When LSU picked up that 4th and 10, it felt like the Tigers were going to take it all the way in and end the Gators’ season in heartbreaking fashion. It really did. All the heartbreaking losses to LSU in recent years- 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2014 and 2015- felt like they would soon be joined by the most heartbreaking loss yet.
But as LSU learned, never underestimate the heart of a defending division champion.
Two runs by Guice put the ball down to the one yard line. The fullback JD Moore was stuffed on a dive play, which had worked repeatedly throughout the game up until then. That ran the clock down to three seconds to set up one last play. And on that last play- the famed LSU toss- Guice was stopped a full yard short. It was over. Florida had won, and the long process of reality sinking in began. It’s still ongoing, if you want the truth.
But whenever reality does sink in for you as an individual, it’s going to be quite a glorious feeling. Florida, the team that was disrespected by being forced to play a road game that rightfully belonged in the Swamp, disrespected the team that disrespected them right back with a 16-10 win, right in front of 90,000 of the rabid fans who once laughed with glee at their ability to finesse themselves a home game they didn’t deserve. Along the way, they shut down that team’s star, Leonard Fournette, to 40 yards on 12 carries. And wait, it gets better. Now that team has to play in Gainesville the next two years.
Oh, and best of all? The Gators are Eastern division champs. They’re going back to Atlanta, and if they can beat FSU this weekend, quite possibly with a College Football Playoff berth on the line.
Florida’s season begins anew this Saturday against FSU. By beating LSU, they unlocked the door to a whole new world they never knew existed, with prizes available that they never could have dreamed of a few short weeks ago. An SEC Championship. A playoff berth. Maybe even a national championship. Who knows?
It’s still very difficult to predict this team, but if they’ve proven anything, it’s that they cannot be counted out regardless of how unfavorable the odds appear to be stacked against them. And given where they are now, that’s all you can really ask for.