GAINESVILLE -- Mike Gillislee “wasn’t even tired” by the end, or so he claimed. But how could he not be? How could the Florida Gators’ senior running back not be a physical wreck after what he had just done? How could Gillislee take 22 second-half handoffs and rip into a LSU defense that, before Saturday, ranked ninth nationally in stopping the run?
Because, said Gators head coach Will Muschamp, “that’s what Gilly does.”
“He just moves the chains,” Muschamp said. “[When it happens] over and over again, you kinda get tired of tackling him. In the fourth quarter, that’s when he starts wearing on people.”
In a performance that very likely ascertained Florida’s return to the upper tier of college football, the No. 10 Gators gritted out a 14-6 victory over No. 4 LSU in The Swamp.
“That was fun,” Muschamp said in what was his most significant win since becoming UF’s head coach.
It might not have seemed that way for LSU which, in having its 18-game winning streak in regular season contests come to an end, was pushed around by the Gators’ bruising running game and unyielding defense.
The Gators didn’t merely emphasize the run in Saturday’s second half. Running the football was the only thing the Gators did on offense from late in the third quarter to the final kneel-down of the game. And there was not a thing the Tigers could do about it.
“Coach [Muschamp] told us that we were going to run the ball down their throats, and just basically tap them out,” UF offensive lineman Jon Halapio said of the Gators’ second-half strategy.
Starting with Gillislee’s 12-yard touchdown with 5:15 to go in the third, which gave Florida a 7-6 lead, the Gators ran off 25 consecutive rushing plays. And after mustering just 47 yards in total offense in the first half, Florida worked over the LSU defense in the second for 190 — with 176 coming on the ground.
Gillislee, who added another 12-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to go with his first, ended up finishing with 146 yards on 34 carries.
“I felt like I kept getting stronger,” he said of his heavy workload.
Said Halapio of the toll the Gators’ ground game took on LSU: The were very tired towards the end of the game. You could see that in their facial expressions, and especially in their technique in their play. Each play, they just kept dropping down and down.”
The physical, wear-down style was exactly to Muschamp’s liking. When the Gators couldn’t keep up with their opponents last year in what was his first season in Gainesville, Muschamp demanded improvement in strength and conditioning. The Gators were outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarter of their SEC games in 2011.
That, Muschamp said, had to change.
“We beat it into their heads in the offseason,” he said. “I think we are a stronger team. I think we have a strong belief we are a more enduranced team. I think we’re going to withstand in the second half.”
They certainly did on Saturday. The Gators had possession of the ball for 20 minutes to LSU’s 10 in the second half. The performance was a far cry from their 41-11 loss in Baton Rouge last season.
“They pushed us in the ground last year,” defensive back Matt Elam said. “I felt like we had to him them in the mouth early. They beat us down last year.”
It was Elam who came up with the biggest defensive play of the second half for the Gators. Moments after Gillislee had given the Gators the lead with the first of his two touchdown runs, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger found wide-open receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on a 56-yard sideline route.
Elam made not only a long run to catch Beckham, but stripped the ball loose from his grasp as he was bringing him down. Referees initially ruled the play a completion, but gave Florida the ball when replays showed the ball coming loose before his knees touched.
“My plan was to stop him from getting in the end zone, but more came out of it,” Elam said.
LSU played the rest of the game on its heels as the Gators plowed ahead on the ground. The result: Florida’s first win over a ranked opponent since the 2009 season.