Beautiful weather. A crisp, clear night. A packed house. A top-10 opponent. A tightly played, emotional game. Tom Cruise. And most importantly, a win for the Tigers.
LSU has hit the midpoint of the season 6-0, with one last non-conference opponent (maybe the toughest of the year) before the Hunt for Red November. It has the best player in college football, who has set such a standard that announcers call a 180-yard, 2-touchdown game "quiet." And it has a passing game that seems to be hitting its stride at just the right time.
There are some concerns on defense, although not as many as some think, and a ton of them on special teams. Will that be enough? I'm not sure. But then Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all have their flaws as well. All that remains is to play it out.
In the meantime, let's get into the meat of this tough win:
- The parallels to LSU's 33-29 win over Florida in 2010 were pretty thick. LSU outgained the Gators on offense, gave up two touchdowns due largely to special teams on a muffed punt and a kick return (one on a kickoff, the other on a punt), with the final touchdown drive featuring a successful fake field goal.
- I almost hate to get my hopes up a bit, but it really does seem like the light is coming on for Brandon Harris. He continues to make good decisions, progress through his reads well and kept the chains moving against what had been the SEC's most prolific pass-rush to date. More than anything he just looked like a player who was in command of this offense. He was running the sidelines talking with his teammates, and the emotion and the pride he had in his team and in himself was really apparent in the postgame interviews. LSU is currently second in the SEC in both points per game and yards per play, and that's not all because of No. 7. Yeah, they're still last in passing yards, but slowly creeping up in pass efficiency and one of just two teams in the league that is yet to throw an interception.
- As for Leonard Fournette, give Florida credit for a game effort. Thirteen of his 31 carries gained less than 4 yards, and there was never that truly back-breaking BIG play, just a lot of medium-sized runs.
- But between two uncalled facemasks and several late pile-ups, somebody's going to have to have a talk with Steve Shaw, because defenses are starting to play hack-a-Shaq on Fournette. Not only is that not fair, it's not safe. And if officials can't look out for the safety of players, what the hell are we doing here?
- Oddly fitting how Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural's roles flipped this week compared to the South Carolina game. Dural was the one with the workmanlike game -- catching passes over the middle and converting third downs to the tune of five catches for 65 yards. Meanwhile it was Dupre making the big plays down the field, including a fluky scramble play touchdown that could be compared to Dural's tip-drill six from the week before. Still, they continue to dial in and make this offense more dangerous.
- Dural did drop one pass in the flat on a nifty motion/bootleg play, but it was largely irrelevant because he wasn't very likely to pick up the first down anyway, catch or no catch.
- Speaking of receivers, one has to hope that a play-action bomb to either John Diarse or Trey Quinn has to be coming soon, because at the moment when those two check in at receiver it almost always signifies a running play.
- Speaking of personnel, LSU's formation count saw the 21 and 11 personnel groupings lead with 21 plays each. The two-back/two tight end set, or 22 personnel, was next with 8 plays. And interestingly, there was a season high in 20 personnel, or two-back, three-receiver formations, with six plays. Some were two-back shotgun looks, but others were in the I-formation. There was also two plays in 12 personnel, one in the 10 grouping (1 back/4 wides) and 1 goal-line/wildcat set.
- Hate to see Dillon Gordon go down on his first catch of the season. He's been such a fantastic blocker, and could be really valuable down the stretch. No official word on the injury, but given that he'd been battling an Achilles tendon issue it could be serious.
- OMG LEONARD FUMBLES! Look, Vernon Hargreaves was going to have to make a play against LSU sooner or later, right? He did manage to rip the ball out of Fournette's hands as he went down. Luckily, Bryan Cox Jr. couldn't secure it until his back had already come down out of bounds.
- Still, Fournette did Fournette things in that first quarter. To set up LSU's first touchdown, Fournette broke for 13 yards. Florida's Jonathan Bullard had jumped offsides on an inside zone play and blown up the fullback, only for Fournette to break left and beat the Gator defense to the corner.
- And of course on his Wildcat touchdown, the defense pinches down HARD inside, Fournette recognizes it and just bounces it outside for an easy scoring jaunt. Although he got away with some slight illegal motion with a step forward before the snap.
- Tremendous job of breaking some tendencies by Cam Cameron. LSU ran a couple of play-action passes off of what has been some of their more successful run looks as of late. The middle-screen to Fournette on the second touchdown drive was very well done. Quick hitter, Fournette sold the pass-block well and then leaked out with just two linemen to block. Florida was focused more on the sideline routes and kind of left a void in the middle.
- Great throw by Harris on Dupre's first touchdown. Smash concept variation, with Dupre running a corner route over the top of two short, in-breaking routes. Harris recognized man-to-man coverage and put the ball high and out towards the pylon. Perfect for Dupre to run underneath.
- And then that flea-flicker. Cam Cameron you magnificent bastard. Just beautiful execution all around, and the play was timed perfectly on first down. The entire offensive front sold the run on LSU's patented power-O toss. The guard pulled, the fullback kicked out the end and everything. The entire Florida defense, save for Hargreaves, who was manned up on Dupre, bit down hard. Dupre broke in and jogged like he was trying to get to the safety for a block, and once he committed to the run he broke into a sprint to the post. To Hargreaves' credit, he played his responsibility, but the ball was out in front and Dupre was able to go get it.
- One perfectly executed trick play deserves another, right? Les Miles did it to Florida again with a perfectly calculated risk -- realistically, if that play doesn't work the worst thing is that Florida is pinned inside the 10 with a tied ball game and more than 10 minutes left. And his players repaid the confidence with perfect execution. Darrel Williams and Colin Jeter both jumped to make their blocks but let three Gators crash hard in from the left. Brad Kragthorpe made a nice throw to Trent Domingue, and aside from a bobble, the kicker broke perfectly to the corner while Williams and Jeter paved the way at the next level.
- The final touchdown of the first half was a Four-Verticals play the turned into a perfect example of how an offense observes what a coach calls scramble rules. Receivers have specific things they're supposed to do based on positon on the field and the position of defenders when they see their QB break the pocket. Harris broke the pocket and Dural, who was near the sideline, got underneath his man on the sideline and worked his way back. Dupre, who was deep, stayed deep and found some open space. Harris made a great throw, Dupre caught it, and boom, six.
- The offense struggled a bit in the second half, but some just awful officiating played a role there. A terrible hold on William Clapp put one drive behind the chains early -- a UF d-linemen tried to torpedo him low and Clapp just fell on top of him. And then were there were two blatant pass-interference plays that were completely ignored, including one on third down. The ball was in the air and Hargreaves very clearly jammed Dural. Textbook.
- To say nothing of yet another late hit with Harris out of bounds going uncalled. It wasn't as blatant as at Syracuse where he was body slammed, but with Harris a good two steps into the white he was given an extra shove that led to him hitting the deck. I wouldn't call it malicious on the defender's part, but it was still dangerous, it was perfectly clear and it was waived off.
Again, at some point this is a question of player safety. Which I'm told the SEC cares about.
- On the defensive side of the ball, much like South Carolina it was a case of a handful of plays putting a damper on a pretty solid effort. Florida ran for all of 55 yards as LSU picked up 9 tackles for loss, including 5 sacks and broke up another 5 passes. The Gators technically did score 21 points on offense, but the first 7 came off of the muffed punt right on the doorstep. And still needed a fourth-down conversion on a scramble play. Overall Florida converted just 37 percent of their third downs, which is under their season average.
- Give Kevin Steele credit for some decent adjustments as the game went on, particularly in the fourth quarter with a modified version of the "Mustang" dime package. Treon Harris completed just 2 of his final 10 passes after hitting 15 of his first 22.
- Still, the big plays did happen. The first one was basically a fluke. Davon Godchaux just missed a sack of Harris (with a UF offensive linemen hooking him around his shoulder pads), he rolled out and heaved out a prayer to Antonio Callaway. Rickey Jefferson broke to the ball and undercut the receiver, probably figuring that if the ball was going to get there it'd be short. Callaway was able to spin around and bat the ball to himself, in a play that I don't think is going to be replicated often, much in the same fashion
- On the touchdown that followed to Jake McGee, LSU brought a blitz from the field with Dwayne Thomas and a linebacker, while dropping Arden Key into coverage with the tight end. Florida picked up the blitz, and while Key had McGee in the flat, he appeared to jump forward a bit, probably reading Harris' eyes. McGee took his route up the sideline and had plenty of room. Rickey Jefferson was occupied in the deep middle providing help on a deep post to Demarcus Robinson, and Jamal Adams was covering Thomas' man in the slot while he blitzed. So it looks like Key was singled up on McGee, and the receiver and Harris improvised a little.
- On the big play later in the second half to DeAndre Goolsby, it appears as though Tre'davious White had the deep third of the field in zone coverage, but stayed with a receiver on a post route to the middle instead of passing him off to the safety. He should have been over the top of Goolsby.
- Later in the fourth we saw some bad mental breakdowns:
- Deion Jones and Arden Key were slow to read a third-down screen play to Kelvin Taylor, and then Kevin Toliver and Jefferson missed tackles that could have prevented the conversion.
- On the first-and-24 conversion, Jamal Adams and Jones' men swapped routes, and while Jones broke on his man inside, Adams left far too much space and gave Harris an easy throw.
- And on the third-and-22 endzone breakup, John Battle appeared to be caught completely flat footed, and had his back to the ball with a receiver over the top instead of being in the deep position as the safety. Luckily Thomas was able to get to the ball.
- Up until the final possession, where Harris made another scramble/lucky heave, the Tiger D-line had started to do a much better job of collapsing the pocket without over-running the quarterback, similar to how they would contain Johnny Manziel a few years back. Florida's offensive line got away with a number of really creative blocking practices. Especially on the Gators' other offensive touchdown drive, in which defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson, lining up on offense, did a nice job of tackling his man on both Florida's 4th-and-1 conversion and the eventual touchdown run.
- Arden Key in particular is getting held or shoved from behind constantly. Although it would help if he knew how to use his hands a little better to keep linemen off him. That will come with time.
- Of course, Florida right tackle Mason Halter had no answer for Lewis Neal, who was all over the field with 10 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, including three sacks. That gives him 7 on the year at the halfway point, the most any LSU player has had since Sam Montgomery was in town. Neal is one of the more fun guys to watch on this team, because he never does anything half-speed. Now if the rest of this unit could start taking a few more keys from him.
- Still, give Florida and Harris some credit. He's a solidly accurate quarterback who isn't a great runner, but knows how to extend plays and use his mobility to influence a defense. In the first half he was able to make a number of throws by just barely pulling linebackers up to the line of scrimmage to throw behind them. I don't think you can teach instinct like that. But a coach can help make his players more confident, and I think you saw that out of Florida even after the game appeared to be getting out of their reach at the half. If McElwain can continue to bring in talent Florida will be formidable again really quick. And they're still in prime position to win the East Division, which would be quite an achievement with this roster.
- As for special teams...oy. Well, at least they came through in the clutch on the fake field goal and then a nice punt that was downed inside the 10. And the kickoffs were pretty good. Probably because "Bitch I'm From Louisiana" made the comeback.
- The touchdown return by Callaway was ugly. Keehn out-kicked his coverage a bit, and once Debo was out of the play courtesy of a shove in the back, just about everybody was blocked. Although Callaway was able to get to the sideline because KJ Malone was pretty blatantly held.
- White's muff was a stupid, STUPID play that started out with good intentions. Usually, if you can field a ball on the bounce it works out. The returner usually already has a head of steam and often times the coverage will start to slow up a bit when they see the ball hit the ground. But White had three players within about 10-12 yards of him. Even if he fields that ball clean, he's not going anywhere. Discretion was clearly the better part of valor.
And stupidity like that could cost LSU another game in the future.