Cristian Garcia and Josh Hammond turned away as the ball was snapped under the “Welcome to Death Valley” sign. David Reese prepared to dive over the line of scrimmage, anticipating a run up the middle from LSU’s Derrius Guice. And Marcell Harris, then Florida’s starting safety, toed the goal line, the length of his body separating LSU from the end zone.
Three seconds left. Six-point game. A stop meant a Florida win and another Southeastern Conference eastern division championship. A touchdown meant a loss and a serious blow to the program.
Guice took a pitch in the backfield and slowed down, apparently confused by the playcall. Reese’s dive was useless. Guice instead took the ball and tried the left side of the newly formed pile of bodies. Harris was waiting.
He lunged at Guice after fighting through a block and wrapped his arms around Guice’s legs, pulling him backwards and silencing the crowd.
“I went and ran around the field and just had a blast,” Hammond said. “Knowing that we were going to the SEC Championship was definitely a great feeling.”
This year’s rendition of the annual Florida-LSU rivalry doesn’t have that level of hype. There’s no division championship on the line, the game wasn’t rescheduled because of a hurricane and the Tigers (3-2, 2-1 SEC) are limping into Gainesville following a loss to Sun Belt Conference foe Troy. But UF coach Jim McElwain insists the missing drama doesn’t change anything about this contest.
“They're just trying to set the Gators up,” he said. “These guys will be coming in here crazed, nuts, ready to go to prove all the naysayers (wrong).”
The No. 21 Gators (3-1, 3-0 SEC) relied on defense to defeat LSU last season, specifically that last-second play by Harris. But this season, they don’t have Harris. He suffered a season-ending Achilles tear during the offseason. Florida also doesn’t have Jarrad Davis, Alex Anzalone, Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, Quincy Wilson or Teez Tabor, who all started on its defense last season. The void they left has been felt.
That’s perhaps most true at safety, where the hole left by Harris has been filled by sophomore Chauncey Gardner. Gardner flashed potential in his freshman campaign as a four-star recruit out of Cocoa High School, culminating in being named Outback Bowl MVP.
But this season, he’s been plagued by missed tackles. He entered last weekend’s game against Vanderbilt missing 47.8 percent of tackles, per CFB Film Room, which ranked him last in the SEC. For perspective, the second-worst was Missouri’s Demarkus Acy at 33.3 percent.
Florida’s defense overall hasn’t been much better. It faced the Commodores ranked last in the SEC by missing 27.2 percent of its tackles. It’s total defense also ranks ninth in the conference after finishing second a season ago. Although there is some reason for optimism.
Remove Florida’s flop against Michigan and its defense hasn’t been as bad. Factoring in only conference games, the Gators rank fourth in total defense. But still, even with CJ Henderson’s pair of pick sixes, Duke Dawson’s consistent coverage and Reese’s team-leading 32 tackles, the defense hasn’t won Florida games this season. Instead, it’s been trampled by Michigan, bailed out by its offense against Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and bailed out again by a penalty against Kentucky. And outside of Henderson, a true freshman, there hasn’t been a playmaker step up.
Eric Harrell, Jr., who played with Harris at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, said Harris was always a guy to count on in tense moments.
“He just led by example,” he said. And Florida’s defense is missing that ability right now, especially facing the team where he made the difference last season.
“He’s probably one of the best players in college football,” Reese said. “I feel like he’s going to be missed on any defense on any team… He made plays. He made big-time plays in big-time games.”
The Gators could use a reincarnation of that when they kick off against the Tigers on Saturday at 3:30 for Homecoming. But on the bright side for Florida, LSU ranks 83rd nationally in scoring offense.
Saturday: LSU @ No. 21 Florida
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville.
TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 3 1/2.
Records: Florida 3-1 (3-0 SEC); LSU 3-2 (0-1 SEC).
Series: Florida leads 32-28-3.
Florida injuries: Questionable — DT Kyree Campbell (knee); LB Christian Garcia (shoulder); DB Quincy Lenton (hamstring); DL Khairi Clark (calf). Doubtful — WR Tyrie Cleveland (ankle). Out —QB Luke Del Rio (shoulder); WR James Robinson (heart); QB Kyle Trask (foot); DB Marcell Harris (achilles).
LSU injuries: Questionable — TE Caleb Roddy (undisclosed); RB Derrius Guice (knee); OL Donavaughn Campbell (foot); DT Edwin Alexander (forearm); FB John David Moore (undisclosed); DE Rashard Lawrence (ankle); LB Sci Martin (undisclosed); T Toby Weathersby (undisclosed). Out —S Ed Paris (knee); WR Dee Anderson (undisclosed).