As UF quarterback Austin Appleby dropped back into his own end zone in Tiger Stadium to throw what would eventually be a 98-yard catch-and-run touchdown to Tyrie Cleveland on Saturday, one thing stood out to him.
“I had all day back there,” Appleby said after the 16-10 upset road win over LSU.
Florida’s offensive line -- despite being down its starting center and right guard the last two weeks and also without left tackle David Sharpe for most of the 20-7 win against South Carolina on Nov. 12 -- has upped its protection.
This has resulted Appleby being sacked just three times and hurried on three other dropbacks in the No. 13 Gators’ two wins that allowed them to wrap up the SEC East title.
Saturday’s game against 15th-ranked Florida State will show just how far the group has come.
FSU leads the nation in sacks (41) and its defensive line features senior DeMarcus Walker, who ranks second with 13 sacks on the year.
“There’s no real time to enjoy [the success],” McElwain said. “What I tried to do was let [the offensive line] know – reflect back on how and why, enjoy it and let’s get back to work today and move on.”
Leading the charge on the offensive line is redshirt freshman center T.J. McCoy. A third-team offensive lineman when he entered camp this year, McCoy has stabilized the interior of Florida’s offensive line since being inserted into the South Carolina game after just two plays.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-1, 308-pound McCoy was the Gators’ top offensive performer against LSU on Saturday, grading out at 80.3. According to the website, McCoy “came to the fore, dominating the LSU interior defensive line on occasion” while also paving the way for sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett, who posted his third 100-yard rushing performance in five games.
"My role has just been, you know, just come in and step in and do what I have to do,” said McCoy, the son of former Gators defensive lineman Tony McCoy. “[Offensive line] coach [Mike] Summers talks a lot about having faith in what you do. You know, practicing hard every single day, working on the little things like details, stepping with the right foot, coming off the ball and being physical. So my thing is just being coachable and just stepping in a role that was a really big role to fill and just doing the things that I'm coached to do."
McCoy and the rest of the offensive line will need to continue playing at an elevating level against an FSU team that averages more than 3.7 sacks per game. For comparison, the Gators have given up an average of 1.5 sacks per game, which ranks second in the SEC and tied for 29th nationally.
Walker, a versatile player who can make an impact at any position on the defensive line, leads the Seminoles’ show. He has four games this season with multiple sacks, including a 4.5-sack outing in FSU’s season opener against Ole Miss.
His supporting cast on the line includes freshman Brian Burns (seven sacks, eight tackles for loss), junior Derrick Nnadi (4.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss) and sophomore Josh Sweat (four sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss).
“When you can't just double-team and slide to wherever the big player is,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said, “that makes a huge difference now.”
And whichever team has the bigger push in the trenches on Saturday will have the advantage in the regular-season finale.
“We're going to ride those guys,” Appleby said. “We have to."