Florida vs. LSU score, takeaways: Gators give up 701 yards, 52 points in historically bad defensive effort

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 12, 2023
Florida vs. LSU score, takeaways: Gators give up 701 yards, 52 points in historically bad defensive effort

Image Credit: Molly Kaiser, UAA

For all the Florida Gators’ failures on offense and special teams at various points this season, the implosion of a defense that appeared to be improving has been a death knell to the program down the stretch of the 2023 campaign. Florida fell 52-35 to the No. 19 LSU Tigers on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, giving up a program-record 701 yards while simultaneously allowing LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels to become the first player in FBS history to pass for 350+ yards and rush for 200+ yards in a single game.

Despite the horrendous defensive performance, the Gators actually led the homestanding Tigers 28-24 with 7:16 remaining in the third quarter. However, LSU outscored Florida 28-7 over the final 21:09 with the defense never coming close to stopping the Tigers, which tore up the Gators on the way to their fifth straight win in what used to be a hotly contested rivalry.

Florida dropped to 5-5 (3-4 SEC) with the loss, its third straight defeat with bowl eligibility on the line.

Let’s take a closer look at what went wrong once again for the Gators in Saturday’s disastrous result.

There’s no defense

There’s simply no way to characterize Florida’s defensive performance Saturday night as anything other than terrible. Yes, the Gators are down some starters. Yes, they are extremely young and thin from a depth perspective. Yes, LSU entered as the No. 1 offense in the nation. It was expected that Florida would give up a lot of points on the road in Death Valley. It was not expected that the defense would play this pitifully.

The Gators allowed Daniels to compile 372 yards passing, 234 yards rushing (!) and five total touchdowns. He personally accounted for 606 of LSU’s 701 total yards (86.5%). This after he scored six total touchdowns in The Swamp last season. Florida gave up an abhorrent 10 (!) explosive plays in the game with LSU gainers of 38, 41, 38, 85, 28, 45, 51, 59, 44 and 37 yards. (Please pause here and read this paragraph a second time before continuing. Seriously.)

Where was the defensive adjustment? Because LSU absolutely made an adjustment for Daniels to run roughshod over this unit in the second half. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams, who was seemingly the spy on Daniels, came nowhere close to helping. Sophomore cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. continued his Year 2 regression consistently getting beaten over the top. Redshirt junior CB Jalen Kimber, who was demoted this week only to be thrust back into a starting job due to injury, got torched time and again. The Gators struggled to tackle. They struggled to pursue. They were completely outmatched both athletically and physically. (At what point does strength & conditioning director Mark Hocke’s job come into question?)

Defense nearly lost the South Carolina game. Defense lost the Arkansas game (despite some of you arguing otherwise). And defense absolutely lost the LSU game for Florida on Saturday night. The Gators have allowed up 43.3 points per game over the last four contests with each opponent scoring at least 39 points. Without researching (give us a break, it’s past 1 a.m. on the East Coast), that has to be one of — if not the singular — worst stretches of defense in program history. And guess what? Florida has top-15 opponents Missouri and Florida State still to come. That 39+ points allowed streak could easily stretch to six games.

Defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong’s fitness for his role absolutely must be questioned. Head coach Billy Napier botched his first hire for the position in Patrick Toney and then struggled to replace him when Toney left for the NFL late in the offseason. Napier brought in a 30-year-old whose lone coordinating experience was two years at Southern Mississippi, someone who Nick Saban had hired just weeks earlier to be a position coach at Alabama.

What exactly is high-paid secondary coach Corey Raymond accomplishing other than high-level recruiting? Again, he’s absolutely dealing with substantial youth among his position group — no question — but Marshall has declined significantly in his second season, and the freshmen do not seem to be improving on a weekly basis.

Napier’s lackluster recruiting out of the transfer portal certainly plays a role. The Gators have a bevy of uber-talented defenders committed in the Class of 2024, but they will all be first-year college players next season as Florida goes up against the nation’s toughest schedule. This will not be fixed with high school recruiting alone — at least not in a year. And that brings us to the biggest problem: There are more questions than answers. It will be up to Napier to find them.

Missed opportunities

We’re largely going to take our foot off the necks of the offense and special teams this week. Both units — much maligned throughout the season — largely did their jobs. Special teams was nearly error free, and it actually made a game-changing play for the first time this year by recovering a fumbled kickoff return in the third quarter that soon led to a rushing touchdown for redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz that gave the Gators their lone lead of the game.

Florida scored 35+ points for the fourth time in its last five contests. For the second straight game, it wasn’t enough, and it is fair to mention that UF absolutely left points on the field — as it so often has this season.

Mertz took two sack-fumbles in the game, losing the first in the opening quarter after the Gators defense gave its best effort of the entire game, a two-play goal line stand. Florida’s defense then made its second-best effort of the game with two sacks of Daniels, including one on fourth down. Except the Gators committed two penalties on their ensuing possession, giving the ball right back to the Tigers, which quickly moved into the red zone and kicked a field goal. Florida forced two turnovers on downs on consecutive possessions yet did not score a single point off them.

Napier’s play calling was largely solid as he went away from the poorly timed trick plays and moved the ball vertically on a more frequent basis. However, he did not call downfield passes until midway through the third quarter — Florida actually found success on those plays — and freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III went an entire half without touching the ball. Wilson, the Gators’ most explosive weapon, was instrumental on UF’s opening score of the game only to not touch the football between midway through the second quarter and midway through the fourth quarter. How is that possible?

Also questionable was his lack of aggression at the end of the first half. Florida had the ball on its own 9-yard line with 2:11 remaining and all three of its timeouts. The Gators immediately got behind the sticks with a delay of game, which Napier failed to call a timeout to avoid. (Florida ultimately regained those yards on an LSU penalty.) Napier then called a timeout to avoid a second delay of game. Yet the Gators just ran the ball — and the clock — taking a 3-point deficit into halftime.

On it’s own, it was not a poor decision given the circumstances. However, this is the same coach who chased points by going for it on fourth down deep in Florida territory in the first quarter against Georgia two weeks ago. The Gators were set to get the ball back after half and were clearly going to be in a shootout with the Tigers. Why would Napier be so risk-accepting two weeks ago to take a massive gamble against the Dawgs yet so risk-adverse this week against the Bayou Bengals knowing LSU had no timeouts and the ball was coming back to his team?

It’s that inconsistency that makes Napier’s game management worth criticizing this week, even if he likely made the right decision in the silo of the specific game situation itself. Between that possession and Florida’s opening possession of the second half, the team did not gain a single first down. Those two drives — and the two aforementioned first-quarter drives that were unable to capitalize off defensive stops — were the offense’s failures on the evening.

Yes, the Gators have improved offensively as the season has progressed. Yes, they have been less-awful on special teams over the last couple of weeks. No, that does not mean Napier no longer needs to hire an offensive coordinator or special teams coordinator. Both are musts this offseason, and now there’s at least a possibility that defensive coordinator needs to be a consideration as well.

Points of positivity

  • Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne was exceptional in his return to Louisiana, rumbling for 99 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. Junior RB Montrell Johnson Jr. (135 total yards) was also strong splitting his production with 65 yards receiving, but Saturday night again proved why Etienne should be getting a lion’s share of carries, not an even split.
  • Mertz completed 26 of 38 passes for 311 yards and a touchdown, including a number of big-time throws (one of which was overturned as a catch in one of many terrible officiating decisions). He broke Tim Tebow’s record for consecutive passes without an interception, but the fumbles and lack of pocket presence remain major issues (two fumbles, one lost).
  • Senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall had a game-high seven receptions for 103 yards. Wilson finished with 69 total yards and a touchdown, though his lack of touches (six) remains a head-scratcher.

Odds & ends

Florida now trails LSU 33-34-3 in the all-time series with the Tigers winning five straight overall and seven of the last eight in Death Valley … the Gators are 2-9 away from home under Napier, 2-15 dating back to the last regime … Florida is 2-11 in its last 13 true road games … UF fell to 9-3 when rushing for at least 150 yards, 3-8 when opponents score first, 4-12 when allowing 21+ points, 1-11 when tied or trailing after the third quarter and 2-9 when being outrushed … the Gators are now 2-8 against AP Top 25 teams under Napier, 1-3 this season … the drought extends to 8-16 against ranked opponents since 2018 … Florida has scored in 446 consecutive games, an NCAA record

What it means

The Gators undoubtedly came to play Saturday night. They were amped up, focused and better disciplined than usual despite being in a tough road environment. This was a far cry from their performance earlier this season against Kentucky, for example. However, the fact that Florida’s failures are this multiple so deep into Year 2 under Napier is immensely concerning. As outlined, there are a variety of factors at play, some of which are not fully in the coach’s control. But at the end of the day, this is not a sustainable product for this fanbase, and Napier is at the helm of it.

Everyone knew Napier was leading a rebuild. Everyone knew this season would be rough. The expectation was that progress would be made even if the numbers did not reflect it in the win column. However, the ways in which the Gators are losing games simply do not point to progress.

Perhaps even worse than Florida’s inconsitent play this season is that there is no sure-fire turnaround in sight. UF ended the night with the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class after losing a four-star commitment to Auburn (not worth overreacting, it’s just one and a circumstantial one at that), but again, all of those players — assuming they sign — will be freshmen next season.

Napier has not proven to be adept at the transfer portal, which is how many other programs — including the rival up the road on I-75 — have flipped their rosters and found quicker success with experienced players. Plus, Napier enters the season with major questions about his coaching staff (as we have discussed ad nauseam in this space and above in this breakdown).

There is no chance that all gets fixed in one offseason. And even if it does, that retooled team will have to play the nation’s toughest schedule in 2024. Good luck with that.

What’s next?

Florida will remain on the road next week for its second straight night game against a top-15 opponent when it visits Missouri for a 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff on ESPN. No. 14 Mizzou obliterated No. 13 Tennessee 36-7 on Saturday with its only losses this season coming to Georgia and LSU. The Gators are 6-6 against those Tigers with a 2-3 record in Columbia, Missouri.


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