Florida vs. LSU score, takeaways: Defense implodes as Gators drop fourth straight to Tigers

By OnlyGators.com Staff
October 16, 2022
Florida vs. LSU score, takeaways: Defense implodes as Gators drop fourth straight to Tigers

Image Credit: UAA

A steady — and at times explosive — offensive effort from the Florida Gators was overshadowed by a horrific defensive performance Saturday night in The Swamp as the LSU Tigers picked up a thorough 45-35 win to capture their fourth straight game in the series for the first time since 1977-80. While the Gators found answers in other areas of their game, their inability to stop a Tigers team that has struggled throughout the season was the catalyst in LSU beating Florida inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for the fourth time in the last five meetings.

Coming off a week in which the Gators struggled massively on third down and entered Saturday night’s game ranked 125th out of 131 teams nationally in that defensive category, the performance somehow only got worse. The Tigers converted 8 of 12 third downs, and on their four failed attempts, they nevertheless earned first downs by converting both of their fourth-down tries.

LSU scored touchdowns on its first six possessions of the game, travelling 73 yards or more on each drive to take a 42-21 lead with 1:07 left in the third quarter. Florida did fight back with consecutive touchdowns while getting a couple key stops, but even a solid overall effort from the Gators offense was not enough to overcome their defensive deficiencies.

“There’s lots of things we can do better. There’s nothing fun about losing,” head coach Billy Napier said. “… It’s my job to position the team to win, to have success, and I could do my job better. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

Napier added: “Our football needs to get better. There’s no shortcuts here. When you have to go through every bit of adversity, it’s not easy.”

Despite Florida-LSU being one of the most hotly contested annual battles in the SEC, the rivalry remains one-sided as of late with the Tigers now having won 10 of the last 13 meetings since 2010. Let’s take a look at what transpired Saturday night in Gainesville, Florida.

1. Free Fallin’: Entering Saturday’s game, the Florida defense was allowing opponents to convert 50.6% of their third-down tries on the season, tied for 125th worst in the nation. And then LSU went ahead and converted 66%. The Tigers went 6 of 7 on third down in the first half with conversions of 40 yards when needing eight, 13 yards when needing eight, 26 yards when needing 10, and 54 yards for a touchdown when needing eight. Its lone failure was a 14-yard gain on third-and-15; LSU promptly converted the fourth down and eventually found the end zone.

The Gators actually held the Tigers to 2 of 5 on third down in the second half, but that’s largely because LSU drove down the field effortlessly by converting earlier downs. Florida allowed 528 total yards with LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels totaling six touchdowns while throwing for 349 yards and rushing for 44 more. The Tigers had 26 first downs and averaged 7.5 yards per play despite the Gators being mostly healthy in the game from a personnel standpoint. There was even one play where the UF defense missed four tackles on a 50-yard run that led to a touchdown early in the third quarter.

What Florida does from here is anyone’s guess. The failures are multiple as Napier pointed out after the game. Though he properly credited LSU for making plays and winning one-on-one battles, Napier correctly called out that UF’s issues involved tackling, fundamentals and scheme. In other words, everything from talent to coaching.

“It’s not one thing or another. It’s a combination of all those things,” he said. Napier later added: “All parts of our team need to improve. Statistically, third-down defense … we’re not very good. We’ve taken ownership of that.”

There’s no question the Gators need to improve massively from a talent standpoint in the secondary, but there is also a significant depth issue at the second level. Perhaps even more integral to figure out is whether co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney can scheme up a unit that can compete in the SEC. Napier may be faced with a key coaching change perhaps before Year 1 even concludes. Toney was highly regarded and sought after when Napier brought him along from Louisiana. What must be determined is whether his scheme can succeed against more talented opponents or the roster simply does not have enough the talent to execute it.

“We’re going to be sick when we watch this tape,” Napier said. “That’s what I can tell you.”

2. Learning to Fly: Sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson has taken his share of lumps over the season, and while he was far from flawless against LSU, the straw that stirs the drink for Florida showed more composure than he has in other tough situations this season. Richardson completed 15 of 25 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown with 51 of those yards and the score coming on his first play from scrimmage, a huge strike to redshirt junior wide receiver Justin Shorter. He also exploded with an insane 81-yard touchdown run as part of his 109 yards on the ground.

Richardson led a relatively strong offensive effort. The Gators converted 7 of 12 third downs despite going away from their game plan, which was going to feature a run-based offense. Though running backs did touch the ball 24 times, Richardson was forced to throw far more frequently in the second half with Florida playing from behind. Sophomore Montrell Johnson Jr. scored a pair of first-half touchdowns while gaining 57 yards on 13 carries. Freshman Trevor Etienne excelled in the return game while tallying 28 yards and a touchdown, and redshirt junior Lorenzo Lingard saw his first meaningful action of the season with 23 total yards on four touches.

Saturday marked the first time the Gators rushed for 150+ yards but lost a game under Napier. With junior right guard O’Cyrus Torrence sidelined, Florida still only allowed a single sack. Richardson did not turn the ball over for the first time this season, and the Gators scored 14 points surrounding the start of the fourth quarter to cut their deficit to a single score, creating at least a chance in a game that looked like it had otherwise been decided. This is what progress looks like.

3. Handle With Care: A special teams unit that has rightfully been dragged through the mud this season put together its best performance yet. Not only did Florida recover a muffed punt that led to a quick touchdown in the second quarter, Etienne opened the game with a 47-yard kickoff return, the Gators’ longest of the season. Sophomore punter Jeremy Crawshaw was also tremendous when Florida needed him to be with a 62-yard punt and 56-yard average across two boots. Beyond that, UF did not allow any significant returns the other way.

In fact, the only down point on special teams was seeing LSU again find uncommon success late in a game on a field-goal try. The Tigers booted a 47-yard field goal to go up 10 points with 1:52 left despite their kicker being 3 of 5 entering the game with a season-long of 36 yards. That’s just how it seems to shake out in these Florida-LSU games with the Tigers always finding a way to accomplish something they would be unlikely to achieve against another opponent.

4. Into the Great Wide Open: At least once a game, it seems like there’s a legitimate question to be asked about Napier’s decision-making. In many of the Gators’ earlier contests this season, rationale could be given for Napier’s tough calls, but on Saturday night, it was tough to understand why he chose to run the clock and not go for a score while trailing 28-21 with 2:17 left in the first half and the ball on the UF 27. Florida did run some plays, but Napier sat on his timeouts and allowed the clock to tick away. Ultimately, UF tried a Hail Mary from the LSU 44 with 1 second left. If Napier had used his timeouts earlier, the Gators likely could have setup for a long but makeable field goal by making another play or two.

Napier explained that the Tigers getting the ball to start the second half put him in a position where he did not want Florida to fail on three plays, punt the ball back and give LSU an opportunity to score again before halftime. And that does make some sense given UF’s inability to get stops in the first half. However, considering the flow of the game and the fact that the Gators moved the ball early in the drive, it was surprising to see them stand there and let the clock run down when points could have been scored.

5. You Got Lucky: Asked about the officiating after the game, Napier was careful not to trap himself into criticizing the referees and thus earning discipline from the SEC. Suffice to say, it would not be unfair for Florida to be bothered by some of what transpired Saturday night. This is not to say every call went LSU’s way or UF did not make legitimate mistakes in the game … but it is to note that luck was not on the Gators’ side. “Officiating wasn’t the issue tonight,” Napier clarified. “They let them play.”

Richardson had his legs chopped out from under him twice only getting one unnecessary roughness call (that did not result what could have been a legitimate ejection). On that same play, sophomore offensive lineman Richie Leonard IV was called out for breaking up a tussle caused by that hit on Richardson; he was flagged, basically negating the 15-yard benefit the Gators would have otherwise received.

And then, late in the fourth quarter with Florida looking for a stop in a one-score game, an incredible interception by sophomore cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. was negated by a roughing the passer penalty on sophomore defensive lineman Gervon Dexter, who tackled Daniels head-up but landed on him with the full weight of his body. While the flag was technically appropriate given the letter of the rule, it was not thrown until well after Marshall had intercepted the ball, and there was not exactly another way Dexter could have landed. LSU then kicked the field goal, went up two scores and iced the game. If that Marshall interception had been allowed to stand, perhaps the result would have been different.

6. I Won’t Back Down: Perhaps the most positive takeaway from the game remains a clear fight the Gators show with each passing contest. No matter the adversity, Florida seems to rally together when times get tough, which is something Napier and the coaching staff have stressed since the day they took over the program. Ironically on Saturday, this occurred on Tom Petty Day immediately after his family was honored on the field during the signing of “I Won’t Back Down,” which has emerged as a new tradition for the Gators between the third and fourth quarters.

On that note … Honoring Petty on Saturday was touching and surely a popular decision given Petty was a Gainesville native and massive rock star. One cannot help but notice, however, that the new “I Won’t Back Down” tradition has completely overshadowed a long-standing tradition Florida had in the same quarter turnover since the 1920s, the signing of “We Are the Boys.” It’s curious as to why the Gators are making such a concerted effort to push the new Petty tradition to the point that “We Are the Boys” is no longer featured by the program or mentioned in the national media.

7. Odds and ends: Florida and LSU are now 33-33-3 all-time against one another … the Tigers have won 10 of the last 13 meetings since 2010 and four of the last five in The Swamp … the Gators are now just 16-15-3 all-time against LSU in Gainesville … UF has scored 24+ points in eight of its last 13 games … Florida is now 4-1 this season when rushing for 150+ yards … the Gators are 30-9 against unranked opponents since 2018 with the Tigers their first unranked loss of the season … Florida is 173-34 in The Swamp since 1990 boasting the second-best home winning percentage (.836) in the nation across that span … the Gators have scored in 429 consecutive games, an NCAA record

8. What it means: This is an incomplete team. And it has been an incomplete team all season, despite a surprising Week 1 win over a Utah squad that just upset USC on Saturday night. Perhaps hopes were raised for Florida coming out of that victory that changed fans’ expectation levels, but there appears to be a resounding lack of perspective from Gators supporters who think Napier should be solving everything overnight despite inheriting a thin roster and broken program, especially from a talent and recruiting perspective.

In college football, talent is the most important commodity a program can possess. Napier has Florida ranked eighth in the 247Sports Composite with an opportunity to finish with a top-five class for the first time in a decade (2013). The two key transfers he brought in this season — Johnson and Torrence — are among the best players on the entire roster; both came with Napier from Louisiana, a Sun Belt program. Despite some on-field success under Dan Mullen, the Gators have been too far down for too long for Napier to come in, snap his fingers and have Florida rolling.

This defense gave up 52 points to Samford less than 12 months ago. Florida entered the season with a 6-10 record over its prior 16 games before Napier took over. This was never going to be an overnight fix. The Gators’ losses this season are to a pair of ranked opponents (including a Tennessee team that just scored more points on Alabama, 52, than any opponent since 1907) and an Tigers team that had the talent to exploit their secondary. Take a breath.

9. What’s next? Florida gets a much-needed bye week to rest its injured players — Richardson and Torrence in particular — and prepare for its annual rivalry showdown with No. 1 Georgia. The off week could not come at a better time for a Gators team that needs to find some answers defensively before taking on the Bulldogs. Due to an extremely uneven schedule, Florida only has one home game remaining in 2022.

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