While a loss causes attitudes to run bleak, the Gators still control their own playoff destiny. Victory from here-on-out may be difficult, but not impossible. The grades from the LSU test may hurt now, but there’s always room for improvement on future exams.
The Gators won time of possession (38:19 to 21:41) and engineered long touchdown drives, successes that should have tired the LSU defense and destroyed the rhythm of quarterback Joe Burrow and the offense. None of that happened.
Defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson dominated UF offensive tackle Stone Forsythe in the game’s later stages (culminating in a nine-yard sack on UF’s final drive), while the secondary — led by safety Grant Delpit — continued to fly around and stifle Florida’s desperation drives.
The Gators’ methodical approach was ultra-successful through the first 35 minutes, as each touchdown march spanned eight plays or more. Quarterback Kyle Trask appeared unhindered by the knee sprain he suffered against Auburn, as he battered the LSU secondary through tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Van Jefferson.
Jefferson ran an absolute clinic on one of the Tigers’ best defensive players, freshman corner Derek Stingley, but he largely vanished after absorbing a brutal hit on a touchdown reception courtesy of linebacker Michael Divinity. Pitts was also taken out of the second-half equation, snagging only one catch in the final two frames after converting four first downs in the first half.
When quarterback Emory Jones was effective when he entered the game for Trask, rushing for 32 yards in the first half and tossing a touchdown (albeit a lucky one) to running back Lamical Perine.
Jones and Perine kept the defense honest — rushing for a combined 101 yards — while Trask picked LSU apart in the passing game. However, Trask’s tremendous tossed a fourth-quarter interception in the red zone, when he forced the ball to the end zone for Trevon Grimes. The contest’s only turnover helped the Tigers to take a 42-28 lead four plays later.
The interception and the inability to score in the red zone on their final drive overshadowed what was an excellent display from Trask (23 for 39, 310 yards, three touchdowns), as the offense put itself in position to win but doomed itself in crunch time.
While the offense was methodical and efficient, Florida’s defense was quite the opposite.
The Gators forced a punt only twice to go with just one three-and-out, as Burrow comfortably completed 21 of his 24 passes. Burrow completed 17 of his attempts to his leading receivers, Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase, as the Gators failed to take away two of the SEC’s most explosive playmakers. The tandem went for a combined 250 yards and three touchdowns.
And with veteran pass rushers Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard sidelined during Saturday’s matchup, Florida applied zero quarterback pressures, allowing Burrow to slice through soft coverages like a sharp knife against a ball of mozzarella.
Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire sliced his fair share of Florida cheese as well, turning 13 carries into 134 yards and two touchdowns. The consistency of LSU’s passing attack set up Edwards-Helaire’s massive rushing lanes, as linebackers Ventrell Miller and David Reese consistently dropped into coverage before attempting to clog the gaping holes in their defensive line.
UF looked especially chaotic when LSU went into its hurry-up, as they weren’t set on multiple occasions. Tyrion Davis-Price took an untouched, 33-yard stroll to the end zone thanks to Florida’s unpreparedness against the tempo, an obvious wrinkle in the LSU scheme in which the defensive players should have been prepared.
Corner CJ Henderson was the only Gator who came to play on defense, as he broke up three passes. However, even he was burned by Chase for a 54-yard touchdown that sealed the Tigers’ victory.
The reason Florida’s defense doesn’t get an F: it made a crucial stop early in the fourth quarter, giving the offense an opportunity to even the score at 35.
But with the likes of Zachary Carter, Jeremiah Moon and Andrew Chatfield, the Gators are talented enough on the edge to pressure the quarterback in Greenard’s and Zuniga’s absence. And with Todd Grantham pulling the strings, the lack of effectively disguised blitzes was alarming.
Special Teams: D-
This may have been one of the most boring special teams performances of all time.
With the modern game adapted toward player safety, only one kickoff was returned for the entire game (a 20 yarder by Edwards-Helaire).
But what made special teams even more boring was Tommy Townsend sitting and waiting for extended periods of time for the referees to call delay of game. Twice he lined up and vegged out, as he incurred one delay of game in the shadow of his own end zone, and Dan Mullen burned a timeout to prevent the penalty in the first quarter.
Aside from the delay of games, Townsend didn’t wear his best kicking boots. He averaged only 42.8 yards per punt, almost five yards less than he averaged against Auburn.
Florida’s only method of clinging to a D was because it prevented a return on all of Townsend’s punts (which weren’t all in bounds anyway), so the coverage saved the unit from complete failure (LSU’s Cade York also missed a 44-yard field goal, but why should UF get credit for his miss?).
Two coaching decisions really brought down a grade that could have been in the A range.
First, why did Emory Jones start Florida’s last drive of the fourth quarter?
Yes, the Gators went three-and-out with Trask on the drive prior, but that was due to a holding call on first down that erased a 27-yard Perine reception. So Mullen decided to turn to Jones to fix an offense that actually wasn’t broken, and he got three yards on three plays when Trask could have led another long, demoralizing drive like he did all night.
Second, why throw to the end zone on third-and-1 in the red zone?
Any points when you’re down a touchdown with over seven minutes left will do, especially after your defense just got a stop. Any run play would sufficed with a back as good as Perine and a kicker as good as McPherson. And I do understand the aggression, thinking you may catch LSU off guard with a shot on third-and-1. But you have to tell Trask to throw it away if it’s not there. Jones was in on the previous play, so Mullen had Trask’s ear before the crucial third down.
Poor coaching also came in on the lack of preparation for the Tiger’s high tempo offense and the delay of game on special teams, but those mistakes could have been overshadowed by execution in the previously stated offensive instances.
Grantham does need to take some heat for not taking away Chase and Jefferson, but nobody has done that this season. When Henderson draped Chase, Burrow simply went to Jefferson, and vice-versa. Yes, more pressure was needed, but LSU’s quick passing game mitigated many blitzes. With that, Grantham restored to zone (similar to the Kentucky game), which got a late stop but was still picked apart by the LSU running game.
But let’s look at the positives because there were plenty.
Mullen used a silent snap count, which helped prevent false starts in the raucous environment (only false start was by Pitts flexed as a wide receiver). The UF head coach also stayed committed to the running game, smartly using Jones in many instances and calling a pair of successful reverses to keep the Tigers honest.
The play calling was on point for most of the game, which makes those bad decisions stand out like black sheep.
Note: Kirk Herbstreit speculated that the Florida quarterback sticking the ball out may be a timing mechanism, not a botched handoff attempt. And guess what, he’s exactly right. I learned of this timing tactic from Feleipe Franks in 2018, and it’s clearly being used by all Gators quarterbacks under Mullen.
Mark Stine is a contributing writer for Chomp Talk. You can follow him on Twitter @mstinejr or can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.