GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The 41-11 beatdown LSU gave Florida last season took quite the emotional toll on the Gators -- especially the defense.
The Gators were gutted by LSU’s ground attack, giving up 238 rushing yards. They looked overmatched, overwhelmed and listless in Baton Rouge, La.
Angry probably isn’t the best word to describe how Florida’s defense felt, but depressed and humiliated are good starts.
That debilitating pain was something this team didn’t want to go through again. It wanted that pain to be transferred over to LSU when the Tigers ventured into the Swamp on Saturday. The Gators wanted LSU to feel what they felt last year … and then some.
“We wanted to come in this game and win, but more, we wanted to come and hurt them,” defensive lineman Dominique Easley said after No. 10 Florida’s 14-6 victory over fourth-ranked LSU. “We wanted them to feel the pain that we felt last year. We had hurt in our heart and we wanted them to feel the pain that we had.”
And for the better part of 60 minutes, Florida’s defense pounded LSU, allowing just two field goals, 200 yards and 42 rushing yards. LSU averaged just 1.7 yards per carry and mustered just 12 rushing yards in the second half. The best part of LSU’s offense was terminated from the start, and it was all downhill from there.
Say what you will about how poorly quarterback Zach Mettenberger played or how banged-up and bewildered LSU’s offensive line was, but Florida’s defense manhandled LSU. The team that tops the physical charts was outplayed and outmuscled by the Gators. And Florida’s defense was the reason for a lot of LSU’s offensive ineptitude.
The Gators brought the pressure to Mettenberger, gobbling him up for four sacks and smacking him around all day. When he did throw, Florida’s man coverage proved too much, and Mettenberger’s confidence looked shaken with all those blue shirts swarming around him, as he completed just 44 percent of his passes.
This unit looked gassed at times last season, but was a total juggernaut Saturday. The Gators flew around on defense, and there was no slowing the Gators down when LSU had the ball.
No play exemplified that more than the game-changing fumble forced by Matt Elam late in the third quarter, right after Florida made it 7-6. LSU beat Florida’s defense with a double move that completely took cornerback Marcus Roberson out of the play, leaving a wide-open Odell Beckham Jr.
To complicate matters for the Gators, Elam took a bad angle on Mettenberger’s pass as he connected with Beckham down Florida’s right sideline for a 56-yard play. But Elam kept chugging after Beckham and eventually stripped him of the ball.
Florida’s recovery sucked every ounce of life out of LSU.
“Them boys were huffing and puffing,” Easley said. “I was looking into people’s eyes and they were scared. We wanted to take somebody’s will. Not just win the game, take their will, make them remember this night.”
Added defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd: “We knew that they were banged up and we knew that they were tired and we wasn’t taking our foot off the gas.”
Florida then drove 77 yards for a touchdown to put the game away.
But that wasn’t all the defense had. It made the stop of the season for the Gators when it forced LSU to kick a field goal late in the first half after the Tigers recovered a Jeff Driskel fumble at Florida’s 7-yard line. LSU gained 3 yards, took two timeouts and settled for three points on a drive that might have buried Florida if the Tigers went up 10.
Florida’s defense constantly bailed the offense out, even with all the great field position it gave the offense. Five of LSU’s last six drives in the first half were three-and-outs, and LSU’s offense crossed into Florida territory just once in the second half … to the 49.
As Gators coach Will Muschamp put it, this defense has the capability to adjust better than it could last season because it's smarter, tougher and deeper.
With Florida’s offense stumbling along for most of the game, its defense kept the Gators going with its smothering play.
“Without those guys, we wouldn’t be celebrating this,” offensive lineman James Wilson said. “The defense is amazing.”
The offense is worrisome at times, but that defense could keep everyone in Gainesville happy. The offense might not be pretty, but that defense sure is, and it’s mean. That’s the demeanor it had Saturday, and that’s what it intends to be from here on out.
“Defense wins championships, offense wins games,” Elam said.
“It’s another step to Atlanta and that’s our goal. I feel like the sky’s the limit from here.”