Updated: Jan 16
That was bad.
The No. 6 Florida Gators (8-2) lost 37-34 to the LSU Tigers (4-5) on a late night in a fog filled Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
It was the definition of a trap game, and the Gators put their foot right in the teeth, pulling their eyes from where they were already cast on the Alabama Crimson Tide and the SEC Championship, just in time to to watched in befuddlement as the trap closed on their ankle.
Befuddled. That’s a good word to describe the entire evening.
It's how the defense looked on a play from midfield when both corners blitzed, leaving Kayshon Boutte wide open for a 34-yard touchdown from freshman Max Johnson (21-36, 239 yards, 3 touchdowns).
It's how tight end Kyle Pitts looked, after not practicing all week with injury and therefore scratched for the day, watching from the sidelines as his team looked really and truly to miss him for the first time.
It's how the entire stadium looked as a bobbled ball took an unimaginable flight path into a LSU defenders hands, a shoe sailed 20-yards downfield and a sure-fire kicker sailed one just shy of the upright...but more on those three later.
It’s how quarterback Kyle Trask and Head Coach Dan Mullen looked when talking on the sidelines after the Gators were settling for a field goal, down 14-7, despite it being their fourth redzone trip of the night. Evan McPherson made that particular field goal to make it 14-10 but the looks on Mullen and Trask’s faces were indicative of how the night was going and would continue to go as the Gators all but officially took themselves out of playoff contention.
“It was huge,” said Mullen of the failed redzone trips.
“Here’s how you win: play great defense, win the red zone, win the turnover battle and win special teams. There you go. If we score touchdowns in the red zone, we win by three scores.”
Not only did the Gators not score in the redzone, they faltered in the other areas Mullen mentioned as well. Florida put up 609 offensive yards and Kyle Trask passed Danny Wuerffel on the Gators all-time career touchdown passes list, securing the No. 1 spot. But despite throwing only three interceptions all year, the Heisman hopeful threw two interceptions—including a pick-6—and lost a fumble. The turnovers Florida led to 13 LSU points.
“Just a couple of bad decisions really on my part,” admitted Trask after the game.
“I take full responsibility for everything. I mean I just got to play cleaner - that’s pretty much it…I take a lot of responsibility myself, if I play a clean first half—I feel like I gave them just 10 points straight up.”
The Pick-6 was fully on Trask. The fumble was on him for trying to hold on to it for too long but also the offensive line for allowing the blitzer through. The second interception however was just a microcosm of the night. In the redzone, Trask targeted Kadarius Toney on the sideline. Toney, on his Senior Night, was magnificent with 249 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.
But on this particular throw, neither he nor Trask seemed to be at fault. It was just the way of the day for the Gators. The pass popped up out of Toney’s typically steady hands. It bounced backwards off a LSU defenders helmet, took a boomerang turn out of bounds but returned to fair territory where it was hauled in by the Tigers’ Ward.
The defense nabbed no turnovers of their own.
“All the things we did, you can’t win doing what we did tonight, no matter what’s going on, no matter who you’re playing,” said Mullen.
“We lose the turnover battle. We turned it over three times, minus-three turnover ratio. We don’t score touchdowns in the red zone. We can’t make key stops when we need to defensively and we lose the special teams part of the game. It’s not a very complicated deal. Give our guys credit, kept battling, kept fighting. Though our guys played hard. Give [LSU] credit, they kind of seemed to make the plays they needed to make to win and we kind of made every play you needed to lose.”
The Gators lost the opening coin toss, something they had been winning and using to their advantage all season, so as to defer and get a “2-for-1” possession, scoring at the end of the first half and then again on the first drive of the second half. Instead LSU won, deferred and while it was only with field goals, in what became a 3-point game, the 2-for-1 the Tigers pulled with field goals to bookend halftime gave Florida a taste of their own medicine.
The Florida and LSU rivalry has been defined by weird games and lately, hatred due to games moved to the end of the season. This one had all of that and more. And as Gator fan Stephen Pointdexter so aptly said, from the moment Florida lost the opening coin toss, it felt like everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And boy did it drop, in a big way…20 yards downfield, where corner Marco Wilson launched it along with the Gators playoff hopes after tackling LSU tight end Kole Taylor. The cleat had come off Taylor during the tackle, and instead of stopping the Tigers on a 3-and-out deep in their own territory with the game timed and 1:51 left to play, Ed Orgeron’s crew received a fresh set of downs off of Wilson’s unsportsmanlike flag. The Tigers kept driving and kicked a 57-yard field goal in the fog for the go ahead score.
Graham Hall of the Gainesville Sun dubbed it “cleattastrophe” and we’ll stick what that name moving forward when referencing the event. And it’s an event Dan Mullen claims he'll have to see on replay.
“I didn’t see that. I don’t know. I mean, I guess that’s a penalty. I have no idea what happened. I didn’t see it,” Mullen effaced after the game.
It was the second time on that night that a Wilson penalty turned what should have been a 3rd down stop into a first down. LSU scored on both drives.
The third quarter…that was it. That was the only time we saw the Gators team that we had been familiar with until tonight. Florida put up 14 points on 142 yards of offense during the 15-minute period. The defense held the Tigers to 92 yards and a field goal.
The quarter was quintessential Florida too, with the offense scoring on two drives that were four plays and five plays respectively, averaging 1:51 of game time.
But the turnovers from the first half had not been overcome. By the time the Gators received the ball back with under a minute to play, they had a fog covered filed to travel with little time to do so. Florida prefers to keep their offense in the air, something that bit them as a lack of running game was evident with a game that needed to be kept on the ground in the weather. But on the final drive, Trask went 3-3 for 42 yards, utilizing his fellow seniors, Toney and Tre Grimes.
From the LSU 33-yard line with 0:02 to play, Mullen trotted out his kicker Evan McPherson for the 51-yard attempt. It had the leg, but was just left.
Said Mullen, “that’s something we practice all the time. I give the offensive guys credit to get us in that situation. Our goal is to get the ball to the 40, the 45 yard line because you didn’t have much time. We got it well within Evan’s range. We expect that to be a pretty consistent field goal for him. We had an easier one than they did and we just missed it.”
After the game, in what Trask described as a quiet locker room, he received a FaceTime call from former Gator great Danny Wuerffel. He wanted to congratulate Trask (29-47, 474 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 2 rushing touchdowns) for setting a new Florida record for most touchdowns in a single season with 40 and counting. It broke the Wuerffel record that had stood since 1996. But while talking, Wuerffel also reminded Trask—who wasn’t born at the time—of how the 1996 season had gone.
“He was basically just, you know, telling me about how he lost his last game of the season—regular season when he was playing. They went back and they beat Alabama the following week so you know it's just one foot in front of the other, you know and that's what we plan on doing next week.”
If this version of the Florida Gators shows up to Atlanta next week, it’s going to be a long night against the juggernaut Alabama. But that’s where the Gators focus goes next, putting the weird night, the befuddling loss and the worst performance of the season behind them.
Said Mullen, “It is what it is. We have to play next week. What we can control is going for an SEC championship and we’re doing that next week. Tonight’s game is what it is, we have to get prepared for next week’s championship game.”