It was billed as a battle between the defensive lines, and for the most part, LSU and Florida lived up to the pregame hype. The two teams combined to score just three first half points, and it took almost until the end of the third quarter before either team broke 100 yards of total offense.
But in a game where the headliners were the big boys up front, it was one of the smallest guys on the field who made the biggest play of the afternoon.
That man was Florida defensive back Matt Elam, and in the end, his key strip of LSU receiver Odell Beckham proved to be the difference in a game that ultimately ended with a 14-6 Florida victory.
Up until the moment of Elam’s play, Florida’s defensive line had controlled LSU’s banged up front line and for the most part the Tigers couldn’t get anything going in the run or pass game. But for one play the line held up, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger hit Odell Beckham for a 56-yard gain, first down and major momentum shift.
Only in the end, the play proved to be a major momentum shift for the Gators, not LSU.
That’s because just as Beckham was being dragged to the ground, Elam- undoubtedly Florida’s best player Saturday- managed to sneak his hand in and pop the ball out from the LSU wide receiver. Florida got the ball back, and 11 plays later Mike Gillislee ran for his second touchdown, giving the Gators their final margin of victory.
And really, when reflecting back on this game, that was everything you needed to know in a nutshell right there: Florida dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, ran hard with Gillislee and every time they needed help, seemed to find a big play from Elam. In the end, it resulted in the biggest Gators victory of the Will Muschamp era, and the first regular season loss for LSU since late 2010.
It also blew up all common logic in the SEC title race.
For Florida, they are now 5-0 overall and 4-0 in league play, and as they await the winner of tonight’s South Carolina-Georgia game, control their own destiny in the SEC race. They play South Carolina at home and Georgia on a neutral field, meaning there’s no reason to think the Gators can’t run the table through SEC play and represent the East in Atlanta. Conceivably, they are in the National Championship discussion as well. It sounds crazy. But it’s true.
As for LSU, well, it’s hard to be too critical of a team which just saw an 18-game regular season win streak snapped, but there’s no denying that with Saturday’s loss, it puts their backs against the wall in the race for the SEC West race and a potential National Championship berth too. Simply put, the Tigers need to win every game from here on out, including when Alabama comes to town November 3.
But back to Saturday for a second, where a ball-club that had been besieged by injuries continued to get bad breaks against Florida, when they lost an additional offensive lineman, and starting linebackers Kevin Minter and Kwan Alexander went down on back-to-back plays as well too. Florida immediately took advantage of the latter two injuries, scoring their first touchdown shortly after Alexander was escorted off the sideline.
Still, despite the injuries, no one could’ve seen LSU get manhandled up front the way they were Saturday afternoon. Florida completely controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, outgaining LSU 237-203 in total yardage (with over a quarter of LSU’s yards coming on the Beckham strip), and limiting the Tigers to just 1 of 13 first down attempts.
At the end of the day, it might’ve actually been Mike Gillislee who summed up the Florida win better than any writer could.
“We’re back,” Gillislee told CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson right after the game. “We’ve been back.”
The rest of college football now knows it.
For all his opinion, analysis and insight, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.