They call this place Death Valley.
It’s where opponents dreams come to die, so the legend goes. On Saturday night, the No. 7 Florida Gators walked through that valley. It should’ve been a valley of death, something that could be assumed it was in light of the 42-28 loss to No. 5 LSU. But these Gators feared no evil and instead of Death Valley, found their valley of Baca.
The two touchdown win won’t give indication for just how tight this game was for 52 minutes. The Gators took a 21-all tie into halftime and were down by one touchdown until just under six minutes remained in the fourth quarter.
LSU came into the game boasting the nation’s most prolific scoring offense, daring the Gators to match their production. On the Tigers first drive, a CJ Henderson pass break up (3 PBU, 3 tackles) helped stall a LSU drive. A Jeremiah Moon tackle forced a stop on 3rd down and then Moon got a hand on the ball during the Tigers 44-yard field goal attempt, helping knock it wide. On the Tigers second offensive drive of the night, two plays covered 66-yards and put LSU in the endzone for the 7-0 lead. But then, Dan Mullen’s squad went round for round in the first half.
On 3rd and goal from the 5-yard line, Tre Grimes (3 receptions, 30 yards, 1TD)—who was wide right—scooted across the back of the endzone and hauled in Kyle Trask’s 5-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at seven.
The teams traded punts, LSU scored again after a bad miss by the Gators and Florida took the ball back for their first possession of the second quarter. It was methodical, moving downfield at a pace that 6:56 off the clock in all. It saw a consistent rotation between Trask and Emory Jones (1-2, 1 yard, 1TD; 9 rushes, 36 yards), featured Trask becoming a “willing runner” and ended with Jones lobbing one up to Lamical Perine in double coverage. The pass was bobbled and Perine’s sure hands brought down the pass for the score to tie at 14.
“He’s a big game back,” said Buchanan of Perine (17 rushes, 65 yards; 2 receptions, 12 yards, 1TD).
“When he first got here he started off going crazy against teams like LSU and Georgia and all the teams that we had to beat. When the spotlight’s on him and his name is called it’s no surprise that he gets it rolling.”
LSU got the ball back and took all of three plays to send Clyde Edwards-Helaire scampering past the Gators defense for a 39-yard touchdown. For an offense that has put the ball in the air for so much of the season, it was the rushing game which admittedly knocked Florida’s defense—10th in the country before Saturday—back on their heels. LSU had 511 total offensive yards and put 218 on the ground.
“This is unacceptable for us. We definitely need to put our head down and grind and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” exclaimed corner Marco Wilson.
“I think for one we weren’t good with stopping the run, and that really killed us. Big run plays set them up for touchdowns they should have never been set up for.”
Just one week after the defense had arguably their best performance of the season, Burrow and the Tigers found soft spots and flourished with both Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga suffering from nagging injuries and unable to play most of the game.
“Not having Jon killed our vibe,” admitted Wilson before continuing, “but we need to learn how to play without some guys sometimes somebody is going to be down and we have to learn to play without them.
“It takes the air out of us, really, [with Greenard and Zuniga out] but the next guy has to step up. We need to put it in our mind that guys are going to go down in a game. Guys are not going to be able to go. The next guy needs to be ready to play just as well as the starter.”
But on a night that the defense was off, the offense and Kyle Trask found ways to step up and deliver. With the clock winding down on the first half, Trask took a shot to Van Jefferson (8 receptions, 73 yards, 2 TDs) for a 6-yard touchdown pass that sent everyone to the locker room tied at 21.
“I thought [Trask] did a really good job,” said Mullen.
“I thought Emory did a really good job, came in and gave a really good mix-up for us. Both those guys. I don't have a whole lot to complain with their performances tonight. I thought they handled the environment. It was an amazing environment.”
The 102,321 in attendance that helped create that environment were silenced at halftime and didn’t have much to scream about to start the third quarter as well. The Gators came out slinging, with Trask finding Jefferson for two plays in a row—the exact same play call according to Van—to move the ball 37-yards in all. Then, since it was working, they did it again.
At the 2-yard line, Jefferson came across the middle of the endzone and hauled in his second touchdown pass of the night.
“I sold it off. It was a slant originally but I sold it off the fade. I looked back and I just cut right in and Kyle placed it there and I just caught it. But I had some drops during the game so that was inexcusable but I’ll get back right though.”
Rolling into the fourth quarter, the Gators were clinging to a seven point deficit, ready to manufacture one of their now standard 4th quarter come back wins. Then with just over seven minutes remaining in the game, Trask (23-39, 310 yards, 3 TDs, 1INT; 10 rushes, 21 yards), who played rather remarkable all night, made his first big mistake. Taking the snap from under center, he dropped back and waited, waited, waited, then took a shot to Freddie Swain.
It was picked off by freshman corner Derek Stingley Jr. in the endzone for the touchback. The Tigers took the drive from there slowly out their own 46-yard line before Joe Burrow (21-24, 293 yards, 3TDs) found Ja’Marr Chase for a 54-yard score that put the Gators down by two touchdowns.
Florida tried to convert in the last two minutes, shooting for a one score game and possible onside kick. The drive stalled in the redzone though and the Gators sang the alma mater after a loss for the first time this season. Now, they look ahead to a four game stretch of SEC East opponents, coming off a loss but still in full control of their destiny in relation to winning the division and making it to the SEC Championship game and possibly still the College Football Playoffs, something Marco Wilson made clear.
“It’s really important because we’re trying to win the East, trying to get to Atlanta and that’s still possible with this loss. So we’re going to put this behind us, watched the film and get better.”
“If this would have been a win we would have enjoyed it tonight and then get over it tomorrow and start focusing on the next team. In a loss you feel the pain tonight then wake up and tomorrow is a new day. Focus in on a new team,” explained Buchanan.
Added Trask, “It was tough. I think there’s two ways you can go. You can either lose and start pointing fingers or you can lose and come together. I think we have a great group of guys and at the end of the day it’s just going to make this team better.”
The chance of it making them better is actually high. This was a game in which the defense faltered, giving up 293 passing yards to Joe Burrow—the most the UF defense has given up in the air to a QB since Josh Dobbs of Tennessee threw for 319 in 2916—and giving up a 4th quarter touchdown for the first time since the Miami win to start the season. But they faltered in areas they can pinpoint.
The offense went toe-to-toe with one of the nation’s best and did so in a stadium that is oft considered the toughest place to play in college football. Kyle Trask became the first quarterback Tim Tebow (Oct. 20, 2007 at No. 8 Kentucky) to throw for three touchdowns on the road against an AP top-10 team and did so with 310 yards passing. Trask became a runner at times, showed marked improvement with pocket awareness and pressure, and made smart decisions within a genius game plan from Dan Mullen.
The running game found room, got better push up front and worked its way to 146 yards. Emory Jones played more meaningful snaps than he has in his entire Gators career.
There is much, much to learn for this Gators team off this loss.
“I think everybody sees it,” said Van Jefferson.
“I think we just came in, you know we did a great job, Coach Mullen called some great plays for us. I think we just executed them right and you know we did some things well and it resulted in some touchdowns.”
Wilson agreed, “I know we could play with anybody, we just got to play to our standard and just focus in on our assignment.”
“We did a lot of good things in this game,” added Trask.
“We showed a lot of toughness to come into an environment like this. We communicated well. We didn’t let the environment impact us negatively at all. We really came together and just really gelled together and put some great drives together.”
The Valley of Baca is a merciless place. Literally translated as the Valley of Weeping, it's a dry, arid environment. One might even say, the chance of rain is never. Unlike walking through Death Valley, where one might escape unscathed if lucky, the Valley of Baca is much more cruel. But while there, those on pilgrimages to Jerusalem are instructed to dig a well. To find the spot where you were most troubled and mark it with a hole. The well will be there the next time you have to pass through the valley.
The path will continue to be relentless for these Gators, unforgiving and filled with hazards. They’ve come through the place called Death Valley, hurt but not broken. But they’ve also now walked through the Valley of Baca. They’ve seen where they can dig a well and draw from it next time. . But these Gators feared no evil and instead of Death Valley, found their Valley of Baca.