It all felt so familiar. Like a gag reflex brought on by the smell of cherry medicine because you remember how bad it tastes. This inept offense — a week after putting up 38 points against Vanderbilt — was the familiar bad taste of the McElwain and Muschamp eras at Florida. This — however unfortunate for Florida and its fans — was home.
At least that’s how it felt at halftime inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday afternoon after the Gators managed 135 yards and three points in the first half of their homecoming game against the visiting LSU Tigers. Things didn’t get better to start the second half, when LSU got the ball and swept Florida’s defense 75 yards down the field for a score.
But as it has twice already this season, Florida awakened from its slumber as if being resurrected from the dead. Down by two touchdowns early in the third quarter, the running game took root and brought Florida back.
Then the taste returned, and thanks to a missed extra point, the No. 21 Gators (4-1, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) fell to LSU (3-3, 2-2 SEC) 17-16 in The Swamp a year after beating the Tigers on the road.
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“It’s a tough one,” coach Jim McElwain said. “Shoot, it is what it is.”
Without leading receiver Tyrie Cleveland, quarterback Feleipe Franks turned to an assortment of players to try to make up for the lost production, though none of them did. Josh Hammond and Brandon Powell were the leading pass-catchers with 29 yards yards each.
In Franks’ first game back as the starter after Luke Del Rio sustained a season-ending collarbone injury last weekend, he also wasn’t overly impressive, though he didn’t make any catastrophic mistakes. He finished the game 10-of-16 passing for 108 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions.
But the backfield, led by Malik Davis and his 90 yards, was impressive once again. Or at least as impressive as possible in a crushing loss.
A week after rushing for a season-best 218 yards against Vanderbilt, the one-two combo of sophomore Lamical Perine and Davis, along with the exclamation point of wildcat quarterback Kadarius Toney, tore through a porous LSU defense in the second half and finished with 194 yards and two scores. Though it wasn’t enough late in the game when the Gators had to pass.
“That’s a testament to the line,” Franks said of the momentary success. “They worked their butts off all throughout the week, and they really showed up when we needed it.”
The Florida defense, like its offense, flashed moments of success and failure. Avoiding big pass plays, stonewalling the Tigers late and holding them to an overcomeable 17 points would be examples of success. Giving up a 30-yard, untouched touchdown scamper to LSU receiver Russell Gage in the first quarter and letting LSU fullback Tory Carter get wide open for a touchdown catch near the goal line were not.
David Reese and Chauncey Gardner led the club in tackles with 12 each. Reese and defensive end Jabari Zuniga sacked LSU quarterback Danny Etling once each.
But the most critical play in Saturday’s game came not on offense or defense but on special teams. Following Perine’s second touchdown of the afternoon, kicker Eddy Pineiro, who hadn’t missed an extra point in 13 tries this season, hooked it left. Florida never recovered, though its players didn’t blame Pineiro for the loss after the game.
“We still had nine minutes, and we still had a chance to win the game,” left tackle Martez Ivey said. “We didn’t blame anybody.”
McElwain, meanwhile, didn’t conceal his shock.
“You don’t think that’s gonna happen,” he said. “But that’s why you practice, that’s why you play, and that’s why they don’t give you the automatic one.”
So after a last-second touchdown pass to beat Tennessee and a second-half comeback to take down Kentucky, Florida’s luck finally ran out amid the taste of spoiled offense. Still, after coming back from down 14, Franks said there’s something to build on.
“Our guys never give up,” he said. “The guys just find a way. Unfortunately, we came up short tonight.”
McElwain said that attitude was missing in those final nine minutes, though. And as a result, he and his players watched as LSU’s herd bled out the clock and rushed the field, just like the Gators did last year in Baton Rouge.
“It hurts,” McElwain said. “There are guys hurting in that locker room. But it should hurt. That’s the nature of the beast.”