It came down to a goal-line stand.
With Florida clinging to a 16-10 lead, LSU holding a first down at the Gators’ 7-yard line and 50 seconds on the clock, four plays were to decide UF’s fate.
First down. LSU quarterback Danny Etling hands the ball to running back Derrius Guice. Two-yard gain.
Second and five. Guice again. Four-yard gain. The Gators are backed up as far as they can go.
Third and one. Fullback J.D. Moore takes the handoff. No gain. The 102,043 at Tiger Stadium stands on their feet.
Fourth and one. Three seconds on the clock. Guice leaps over the line of scrimmage and is caught by UF safety Marcell Harris. Guice hits the ground outside of the end zone.
Florida’s bench storms the field.
No. 21 Florida clinched the SEC East for the second-straight year with a 16-10 victory over 16th-ranked LSU and gave second-year UF coach Jim McElwain the first statement road victory of his tenure at Florida.
“It’s no small feat to go to that championship game back to back,” said McElwain, who led a team without seven of its starters to its first win at LSU since 2009. “... That’s what we’re doing.”
The goal-line stand sealed Florida’s win, but one pass in the third quarter that essentially covered the length of the field pushed the Gators over the top in the first place.
UF quarterback Austin Appleby took a snap out of his own end zone inside Tiger Stadium, dropped back five steps and looked to his right before firing a pass to freshman Tyrie Cleveland.
Cleveland hauled in the catch about 30 yards from the line of scrimmage, shook off defensive back Donte Jackson and was off to the races.
One play, 98 yards, touchdown.
It’s the longest play from scrimmage in Tiger Stadium history, the second-longest passing touchdown in Florida history and gave the Gators (8-2, 6-2 SEC, No. 23 in College Football Playoff rankings) a 10-7 lead in the third quarter.
“I just knew that I saw our little section going insane,” Appleby said, “and I figured I should go insane too.”
Insanity defined the hype to the game, which was pushed back from its original Oct. 8 meeting date due to the potential threat to hit Gainesville from Hurricane Matthew. Emotions magnified after a pre-game scuffle that saw the bulk of both teams clash on the field and during which LSU running back Leonard Fournette pushed UF assistant coach Torrian Gray.
“There was a lot of buildup coming into the game,” cornerback Quincy Wilson said. “The East was in our hands. The whole thing with the little hurricane and they were saying we were scared or whatever. Clearly we ain’t scared.”
After LSU took an early 7-0 lead, Florida played like it wasn’t scared.
Eddy Pineiro’s 36-yard field goal in the second quarter put UF on the board after a solid first drive stalled at midfield. Caleb Brantley’s forced fumble in the redzone about six minutes later gave them life.
Cleveland’s catch-and-run served as a final catalyst down the stretch for UF, which added its final six points on a pair of Pineiro field goals.
“The way I look at it,” McElwain said, “they got what they deserved. And it should have been worse.”
LSU (6-4, 4-3 SEC, No. 21 CFP) countered Florida’s energy throughout the day with long-winded, methodical drives that ate up time and had the potential to wear down the Gators’ defense. On its first drive, LSU orchestrated a 12-play drive that lasted just over six minutes that ended with a Guice 1-yard touchdown run.
Etling used a mixture of play-action passes and wide receiver reverses to keep UF’s defense off balance.
But Florida’s defense executed in the red zone. After the opening touchdown, LSU managed just three points on its final four trips inside Florida’s 20-yard line.
Highlighting the red-zone performance was the final drive, where the Gators’ goal-line stand sealed Florida’s spot atop the SEC East.
“We came in with a purpose,” McElwain said. “We played the way we needed to play and it wasn’t pretty, but I’m going to tell you this, the future’s bright for the Gators.”