It was a 14-point loss on the road in Baton Rouge, which is exactly what the Vegas oddsmakers pegged it, but the 42-28 final margin doesn't tell you how close the Florida Gators came to either beating LSU outright or at least sending the game into overtime. It wasn't a two-touchdown deficit. It was a two-play deficit.
The first game-deciding play happened on the first play of Florida's second possession of the third quarter. On the first possession, the Gators marched 76 yards downfield in eight plays, taking a 28-21 lead on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Trask to Van Jefferson. After LSU answered to tie the game with its own 8-play scoring drive, this one covering 75 yards, the Gators got the ball on their own 25. On the first play, Trask swung the ball out to Lamical Perine who found an alley down the sideline and crossed midfield before he was brought down. Instead of first-and-10 at the LSU 48, however, the play was called back because Stone Forsythe was flagged for holding, moving the ball back to the UF 15. A couple of plays later, Trask was sacked for an 8-yard loss, then there was a delay of game penalty on fourth down. Tommy Townsend had to punt from the end zone and while he launched a 48-yarder, LSU had exceptional field position at its own 48, where the Gators would have been if not for the holding call. Four plays later, LSU scored to take the lead for good, 35-28.
There is no certainty the Gators would have scored on that drive if not for the holding penalty, but at the time, the LSU defense was reeling and had no answers for Trask and the passing game. I'm of the opinion the Gators would have come up with at least three points on that drive to silence the Death Valley maniacs. The way Trask was throwing and the way the UF wide receivers were beating the LSU secondary, a touchdown wasn't out of the question but bad things happen when you lose 37 yards on the road and you have first-and-20 at your own 15. The penalty changed Florida's entire offensive dynamic and tilted momentum back to LSU.
The second game-deciding play was the Trask interception in the end zone with 7:06 left in the game. This is a drive that began on Florida eight, trailing, 35-28. Highlighted by two third down conversions – a 21-yard completion from Trask to Freddie Swain on a third-and-10 and a Trask pass to Trevon Grimes for 19 yards on a third-and-12 – the Gators drove to the LSU 16 in 11 plays. On third-and-one and with the Tigers putting nine in the box, the Gators elected to throw the ball. The right side of the O-line did its job but Brett Heggie barely got a piece of Rashard Lawrence, forcing Trask to step up and to his right. His throw on the move was wide left of Freddie Swain in the end zone where Derek Stingley made a diving interception. The timing of the play was totally blown up when Lawrence broke through. If Trask hadn't been forced to step up and hurry the throw he would have had two open options – Van Jefferson across the middle and Swain at about the five. Instead of a first down or a touchdown, the Gators gave the ball up and LSU scored on its ensuing possession.
Once again, there is no certainty that even if the Gators had tied the game or even come away with a field goal that they would have Kept LSU out of the end zone one more time. What we do know, however, is that the chance to win the game was eliminated on those two plays. The fact that the Gators had so many things go wrong and yet two plays could have changed the entire outcome tells you this is indeed a very good football team. Post game Coach O gave plenty of credit to the Tiger Stadium crowd and said that had a lot to do with getting the win. He's right. Had this game been played in Gainesville with The Swamp loud and intense like it was against Auburn, the outcome could have been much, much different.
THIS IS STILL AN EXCEPTIONAL DEFENSE
If all you do is go by the box score, then Florida's defense was exposed and judged a fraud Saturday night. That's hardly the case. It's still a very good defense, in fact, one of the best in the country but this was a night when the injury bug bit the Gators very, very hard and there was no way to compensate.
When Jonathan Greenard came up lame, tweaking that high ankle sprain, the Gators lost the glue that holds this defense together. He's kind of the dial-a-play guy for the Gators – the situation is tight, the Gators need to make a play and somehow, someway Jonathan Greenard gets involved and makes something good happen for the Gators. Through the first six games of the season, Greenard was the SEC's most valuable defensive player. Even now, after this injury that could keep him out another game or more, he's still the runaway choice as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
What Greenard gives defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is a Swiss Army Knife, versatile enough to be used in just about every imaginable circumstance. When Greenard departed, Grantham lost that flexibility he has with an elite pass rusher who can also play the run, drift out into pass protection and move up and down the line to create havoc with the offensive line calls. Without Greenard in the lineup, LSU's offensive line didn't have that one guy that has to be accounted for on every single play and it showed in the pass protection. For the most part, Burrow stood like a statue in the pocket and gave his receivers all the time they needed to find the soft spots in the Florida zone.
In addition to losing Greenard, the Gators lost Jabari Zuniga who also reinjured his ankle. Alone, Zuniga is a load although not as much an impact player as Zuniga. With the two of them, Florida could have had a dynamic effect on LSU's passing game. If the Gators just had one of them healthy, they certainly could have put more pressure on the Tigers.
Without Greenard and Zuniga, Grantham was forced to blitz a lot more than he's accustomed and he had to play a soft zone most of the game. Without pressure off the edge, Grantham had to back the corners off the line of scrimmage which gave the LSU receivers running starts before they came in contact with Florida DBs. The combination of four and five receiver sets and the soft zone opened up the running game, which the Gators struggled to stop without the corners and safeties closer to the line of scrimamge. LSU ran for 218 yards and produced touchdown runs of 57 and 33 yards.
This is a beaten up Florida defense that doesn't have the advantage of an off week to heal up nor the depth to replace one stud with another. Looking ahead to Saturday, the Gators may be forced to tough it out without Greenard and Zuniga against a grind it out South Carolina team that can get the job done in the passing game when true freshman Ryan Hilinski is healthy and upright. Before he went down with a sprained knee on a blatantly late hit against Georgia, Hilinski had completed 15-20 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown.
The Gamecocks have a balanced attack that averaged 409.8 yards per game, 193.5 on the ground (5.69 per carry) and 216.3 through the air (6.0 per attempt).
TRASK IS A KEEPER
When GameDay was scanning the crowd for signs in Baton Rouge Saturday morning one that stood out read, “I started more games in high school that Kyle Trask.” While it's possible that the sign is true, the sign creator couldn't have done what Trask did Saturday night in one of college football's most hostile environments. With the exception of the interception and the freeze option that failed down at the goal line late in the fourth quarter, Trask was steady as a rock. He hit 23-39 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns on a really good LSU defense.
When the Tigers brought the heat Trask didn't flinch at all and he showed some mobility in the pocket that tells you he listens to his coaches. A week ago against Auburn he stood in one place and held the ball too long. Against LSU he moved his feet, found good passing lanes and made some nice throws after taking three or four steps toward the line of scrimmage. He's now 93-136 passing for 1,212 yards (8.9 per attempt) with 10 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
We're seeing him grow week-to-week and while still not the polished product that Dan Mullen wants, he's getting there and at a faster rate than any of us could have envisioned. So while that yokel with the sign might have started in high school, Kyle Trask is starting at QB in the Southeastern Conference and doing it well enough that eventually, he will get his chance to make an NFL roster in the future.