This was old-school football at its best, the kind of performance only Southeastern Conference loyalists could love.
And Florida – yes Florida – was the team putting on a show.
Mike Gillislee ran for a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns, bringing the 10th-ranked Gators to life in the second half as they upended No. 4 LSU 14-6 Saturday.
Led by Gillislee and a dominant defense, Florida’s grind-it-out victory avenged a 41-11 loss in Baton Rouge last season, handed the Tigers their first regular-season loss in 19 games and gave coach Will Muschamp a signature win in his second season.
Muschamp’s transformation of the Gators from spread-offense speed-merchants to hard-running street fighters seems to be complete. It was the program’s first victory against a ranked team since beating rival Georgia in 2010.
”We wanted to hurt them,” Florida defensive end Dominique Easley said. ”We wanted them to feel the pain that we felt last year. We had hurt in our heart, so we wanted them to feel that same thing.”
Linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Matt Elam provided big plays on defense. Gillislee once again carried the load on offense, carrying 34 times.
Together, they wore down the Tigers (5-1, 1-1 SEC) in the second half – no surprise since the Gators (5-0, 4-0) have been doing that all season. Florida, which trailed 6-0 at halftime, also came from behind to beat Texas A&M and Tennessee on the road last month.
This one was even more impressive.
”They beat us down last year,” Elam said. ”We had to come back. We had something to prove. We had a plan to hit them in their mouth, and we executed.”
The Gators harassed quarterback Zach Mettenberger, pretty much shut down running backs Spencer Ware, Kenny Hilliard and Michael Ford, and completely wore down LSU’s vaunted defense.
Mettenberger completed 11 of 25 passes for 161 yards, with an interception. LSU finished with 42 yards rushing, three more than what Alabama held the Tigers to in last season’s Bowl Championship Series title game. The Tigers were 1 of 13 on third down and finished with just eight first downs – three on penalties.
”I think our football team is sick, sick with knowledge that they could have played better,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
Florida credited new strength coach Jeff Dillman and the team’s continually improving offensive line – the same one Muschamp called soft late last season – for the victory. Gillislee got props, too.
”I’ll take Gilly over anybody,” Muschamp said. ”I tell him that all the time and I mean that. I felt that way in spring and going into fall camp. … He’s a Will Muschamp guy. He don’t ever say anything, he just does his job, lines up, runs the ball. If you ask him to block, he’s going to block. If you ask him to catch the ball, he’s going to catch the ball. He just is a really, really, really good football player.”
It was Gillislee’s third 100-yard game of the season, and it came against one of the league’s most feared fronts. Highly touted defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery were neutralized much of the day. Linebacker Kevin Minter had a career day, finishing with 20 tackles despite missing a few plays while dealing with leg cramps.
Minter had two of LSU’s five sacks in the first half, helping the Tigers hold Florida to 47 yards at the break.
But the Gators looked completely different after intermission. They went to a heavy package featuring two extra offensive linemen to run the ball – they call it ”God’s play” – and it worked to perfection.
Florida scored on consecutive drives by running on 17 of 18 plays. Gillislee ended both of them with 12-yard touchdown runs, one in the third quarter and another early in the fourth.
”They were definitely more physical than last year,” Mingo said.
The Gators ran the ball on their final 25 snaps, gashing the Tigers between the tackles.
”Them boys was huffing and puffing,” Easley said. ”I was looking in people’s eyes and they were scared. That’s what we wanted. We wanted to take somebody’s will. We like to take people’s will, not just win the game. Make them remember this night.”
Maybe the play of the game came between those game-changing, run-oriented drives. Elam stripped Odell Beckham Jr. following a 56-yard reception on third down.
Initially, the officials ruled Beckham was down when the ball came out. Replays, though, clearly showed the ball coming out before his knee hit the ground. The play was reversed, and Florida seized the momentum.
”It was a hustle play,” Elam said. ”It was all instinct. It was great effort that paid off.”
Florida was so dominant that it could have posted a second consecutive shutout at home. But two seemingly silly plays helped LSU get points.
Bostic, who was a key cog in stuffing LSU’s run, was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the game’s opening drive. Instead of facing third-and-17, LSU got 15 yards and an automatic first down. It set up Drew Alleman’s 31-yard field goal.
Alleman added a 21-yarder just before halftime as LSU capitalized on Jeff Driskel’s fumble. Driskel, who completed 8 of 12 passes for 61 yards, held the ball too long and then fumbled while trying to scramble away from Bennie Logan. Guard James Wilson had a shot at the loose ball but whiffed.
Mingo eventually came up with it, setting LSU’s offense up at the 7-yard line.
Florida’s defense made a stand, though, and forced the chip shot.
”That was typical 1980 SEC right there today,” Muschamp said. ”It was a physical, physical match. … That’s the difference between playing in this league and these other leagues you watch on TV. I know you guys like all these points being scored, but the quarterback won’t make it through the season in our league.”