GAINESVILLE, Fla. — LSU and its first-year coach badly needed a win. The Tigers almost gave it away, but their defense stood tall at the end. Here are three thoughts from LSU’s 17-16 win Saturday against Florida.
1. It felt like a moment of truth for Ed Orgeron and his team. The LSU coach, whose physique, voice and mannerisms scream TOUGH, had put a soft team on the field since he was promoted from interim to full-time head coach. Finally, the Tigers had a chance to prove they aren’t the team that got walloped by Mississippi State and pushed around by Troy.
Facing fourth-and-three against an offense that had gashed them on the ground for an entire half and nursing a one-point lead thanks to a first-time missed PAT by a reliable kicker, the Tigers waited for the snap. If Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks handed off, the drive might continue. After all, the Gators had fought back thanks to two third-quarter touchdown drives led by the trio of Lamical Perine, Malik Davis and Kadarius Toney, who combined for 112 yards on 14 carries on those possessions. But it was fourth down, mostly thanks to the fact that LSU’s Donte Jackson had made Franks rush a throw on the previous down. Running might be too risky.
Franks took the snap and dropped back. The Tigers’ line surged. Franks let it fly. In the middle of the field, LSU linebacker Devin White swatted it down. The Tigers would run out the clock and survive. They would leave The Swamp with a 17-16 win. When they had needed to bow up Saturday, they had.
That, among a few other factors, was the good news for LSU.
The win will make the bad news—such as the possibility that LSU isn’t capable of throwing the ball against a competent defense—much easier to take. Plus, the win can be a building block for improvement in the future. Of course, if LSU plans to keep winning, that improvement must come quickly.
Auburn, which has beaten Mississippi State and Ole Miss by a combined score of 93-33 in its past two games, is headed to Tiger Stadium next week.
2. For Florida, the loss feels like a regression to the mean. The Gators escaped with close wins against Tennessee and Kentucky, but they didn’t seem appreciably better than either team. On Saturday, LSU didn’t seem appreciably better than Florida, but the Tigers came out on top.
Eddy Pineiro’s wide left extra point, his first miss in 48 tries as a Gator, wound up providing the margin of defeat. The loss is not the fault of Pineiro, though. Florida could not get out of its own way even after discovering an offensive formula that worked.
Florida’s extended quarterback competition ended last week when Luke Del Rio was lost for the season with a broken collarbone. That left redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks as the only viable starter. It didn’t really matter who played quarterback for Florida on Saturday, though. By the third quarter, the Gators discovered that their best chance to move the ball was on the ground. They were gashing the Tigers with Perine and Davis out of the backfield and Toney as a wildcat quarterback. Those three helped the Gators turn a 17-3 game into a 17-16 game, but Florida could get no closer.
A holding penalty got the Gators behind the sticks on one drive. An incomplete pass got them behind the sticks on the next one. A false start on first down was the culprit on the final drive.
Saturday felt like the opposite of the rest of the season for the Gators. For once, they seemed to hit upon a reliable offensive formula. But this time, they didn’t win the game.
3. Orgeron admitted last week that he had asked offensive coordinator Matt Canada to cut down on some of the pre-snap shifts and motion that define his scheme. Later, LSU players would admit that they were running some plays that the Tigers ran last year—when Canada was the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh. The result of that change was a 10-0 halftime deficit against Troy. Orgeron told Canada to run the full offense at halftime, but it was too late. The Tigers floundered to a 24-21 Homecoming loss to a Sun Belt Conference team.
Orgeron’s decision to truncate the offense violated one of the key promises he made while campaigning for the full-time job while he was the interim coach last season following the firing of Les Miles. Orgeron said then that one of the reasons he had failed as the Ole Miss coach from 2005-07 was a micromanaging style that suffocated his assistants. He said if he got the full-time job, he would hire good coordinators and let them do their jobs. After multiple meetings this week — players and coaches, coaches and coaches, players only and athletic director Joe Alleva with Orgeron and his coordinators — it was decided that Orgeron would do that from this week forward.
Saturday, the Tigers ran the full Canada offense from the start. Multiple players—including offensive linemen on occasion—shifted before nearly every play, and those shifts provided a few early opportunities to gain big yardage on jet sweeps. LSU scored its first touchdown on such a sweep. After LSU had run several sweeps to the right, quarterback Danny Etling handed to receiver Russell Gage, who was running toward the left sideline while the rest of LSU’s team blocked what appeared to be another run to the right. Florida’s entire defense followed the play action and Gage coasted in for a 30-yard score.
The Tigers continued using the offense the rest of the day, but their success dwindled as Florida’s defense figured out the sweeps and came to the realization that LSU wouldn’t throw unless absolutely necessary. Etling is not the quarterback Canada had last year at Pittsburgh in Nathan Peterman. That’s quite obvious. But Canada’s task this week is finding some way to make Etling comfortable throwing the ball so Auburn doesn’t shove 10 defenders in the box next week.