University of Florida

Despite tough loss to LSU, Florida Gators still control SEC East destiny

Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway (81) drops a pass in the end zone under pressure from LSU defensive back Dwayne Thomas (13) and safety John Battle (26) in the second half in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. LSU won 35-28.
Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway (81) drops a pass in the end zone under pressure from LSU defensive back Dwayne Thomas (13) and safety John Battle (26) in the second half in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. LSU won 35-28. AP

There’s a scene early in Mission Impossible II when Anthony Hopkins says, “This isn’t mission difficult. It’s mission impossible. Difficult should be a walk in the park.”

After playing in Death Valley at night, against the nation’s best player and with a backup quarterback, a week’s worth of distractions and zero running game, Florida understands that sentiment.

With Tom Cruise in attendance, the then-No. 8 Gators nearly shocked the sixth-ranked LSU Tigers on Saturday, losing 35-28 on a fake field goal in the fourth quarter. UF dropped to 13th after the loss, and LSU moved up to No. 5.

Although there was no Hollywood ending Saturday, the Gators (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) stood toe-to-toe with a fellow heavyweight and remained in the driver’s seat for a trip to Atlanta — something no Florida team has done with a first-year coach.

After a bye week, UF faces division-rival No. 25 Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 31 with a chance to grab a stranglehold on the SEC East. Florida hasn’t played in the conference championship game since 2009.

“It ain’t that bad,” UF coach Jim McElwain said of the loss. “Hey, the sun will come up tomorrow, and we’re still in control of what we need to do. … I think [the next week] will tell a lot about this Gator football team. It really will. And as you go through life, you get tests, man.

“Things don’t always happen the way you want them. Really the measure is how you deal with it. Everybody in this room can learn from that. We just get an opportunity to go back to work and get ourselves a little bit better. And that’s what the Gators are going to do.”

The Gators proved their mettle by exchanging haymakers with the Tigers in a classic.

LSU running back and Heisman Trophy hopeful Leonard Fournette racked up 180 yards and two touchdowns, but UF freshman wideout Antonio Callaway nearly stole the spotlight, silencing a crazed crowd with a game-tying 72-yard punt return in the third quarter. The former Booker T. Washington star also corralled a ridiculous 48-yard, one-handed catch (No. 3 on SportCenter’s Top 10 plays Sunday) from quarterback Treon Harris and had the would-be tying score jarred from his hands late in the fourth quarter.

“I’m sure glad he’s on our team,” McElwain said. “He’s a wonderful person. He’s got a great personality. … A warm heart. And he really cares. I’m sure glad he’s a Gator.”

Florida wasn’t particularly sharp Saturday, but the fact the Gators didn’t fold facing adversity was encouraging for McElwain, especially with how his team responded to a pair of 14-point deficits.

“We played hard,” he said, also acknowledging he’s not in the profession for moral victories. “There could have been a lot of reasons for everybody to [think], ‘Oh these guys will fall apart.’ But no, we didn’t. And I didn’t expect we would.”

The Gators are likely to be favored in their remaining five games, so their playoff hopes — an impossible thought a month ago — remain alive.

“All in all, it was a heck of a football game,” McElwain said. “Now what are we going to learn from it? I’ll find out. You’ll find out. Our guys are disappointed, but as I told them, ‘It ain’t about being disappointed. It’s about learning from the experience.’ 

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