Everyone knew No. 6 LSU had the best horse in the race, but it turns out the Tigers aren’t just a one-trick pony.
While Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette once again gouged a defense, LSU quarterback Brandon Harris provided a nice one-two punch Saturday night in Death Valley.
And it almost wasn’t enough.
The Tigers survived a seesaw shootout with the No. 8 Gators, as coach Les Miles pulled an old trick out of his bag to secure a 35-28 win in a prime-time showdown between undefeated Southeastern Conference heavyweights that didn’t disappoint.
“That was a heck of a college football game,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.
Miles fooled Florida with another fake field goal late, as kicker Trent Domingue scooted 16 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
“That was pretty awesome,” McElwain said, giving a tip of the hat to the magic of the Mad Hatter. “Kind of a badge of honor they’ve got to fake one to beat us.”
Although Death Valley shook Saturday night, the Gators refused to blink.
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Florida (6-1, 4-1) overcame a week’s worth of chaos to nearly spring the upset, as former Booker T. Washington stars Treon Harris and wideout Antonio Callaway spearheaded the gritty, hard-fought effort.
Harris started in place of Will Grier — who was suspended Monday for violating the NCAA’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs — and completed 15-of-26 passes for 231 yards and two scores.
Playing significant snaps for the first time in a month, the sophomore quarterback looked rusty at times, but he kept UF alive with key plays until the end — his final throw sailing out of bounds as the clock expired.
“Treon played his tail off,” McElwain said.
Callaway, a true freshman, delivered several highlight plays, too, including an electric 72-yard punt return to knot the score at 28 in the third quarter.
But it wasn’t quite enough.
Fournette was a monster again, punishing UF tacklers with violent haymakers and stupendous spin moves. Although the sophomore had his 200-plus-yard rushing streak snapped, he still racked up 180 yards and two scores.
“Face it, that guy’s the best player in college football,” McElwain said.
Meanwhile, LSU (6-0, 4-0) suddenly found a passing game, too.
Piloting the nation’s worst aerial attack, Harris schooled UF’s secondary throwing for 202 yards and two touchdowns. He found Malachi Dupre on a gorgeous 9-yard fade pattern in the second quarter and connected again with Dupre for a 52-yard flea-flicker and a wild, jolting 50-yard touchdown right before halftime.
The Gators actually sprinted to a quick 7-0 lead, but they chased the scoreboard thereafter.
Their opening drive stalled after just a single first down, but punter Johnny Townsend sent an awkward, bouncing kick deep into LSU territory where Tre-Devious White made an awful decision and muffed the return. The turnover was just LSU’s second on the season, and Florida turned the excellent field position into points, as Harris found tight end Jake McGee on a bootleg on fourth-and-inches from the 2-yard line.
The Tigers answered quickly, though, with Fournette waltzing into the end zone untouched to tie the score.
Then the shootout was on. LSU scored 28 points in the second quarter — more than UF had allowed in a game all season.
UF looked listless and flustered. But Treon Harris sparked the team with a quick-strike answer. He hooked up with Callaway, who made a juggling, one-handed 48-yard reception. On the next play, Harris found McGee wide open on a 19-yard wheel route on a busted coverage.
Later, Callaway silenced a deafening crowd, tying the score at 28 and becoming the first true freshman in school history to return a punt for a touchdown in a conference game.
“He had a heck of a game,” McElwain said. “I’m sure glad he’s on our team.”