BATON ROUGE, La. — The memory of Florida’s last-man-standing win over LSU at the Swamp last season hung over Tiger Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Gators showed up anticipating the same type of physical, grueling test that makes you sore for days afterward.
Obviously, so did the Tigers.
“They kind of beat us at our own game,” said defensive tackle Damien Jacobs. “It was the opposite of last year.”
In almost every way.
It was LSU’s defensive line constantly pressuring Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy.
It was the Tigers’ offensive line pushing the Gators back after the snap.
Finally, it was LSU that hunkered down and ran the ball with a late lead to ice the game as the home fans roared in approval.
When time expired in LSU’s 17-6 win, the Gators retreated to the locker room and prepared for the trip home fully aware they missed a golden opportunity Saturday.
Coupled with Missouri’s win at Georgia, the Gators could have departed with sole possession of first place in the SEC East with a victory. Instead, Florida (4-2, 3-1 SEC) dropped into a three-way tie for second with Georgia and South Carolina.
Meanwhile, Missouri (6-0, 2-0) is the surprise leader of the SEC East at the season’s halfway point and welcomes the Gators to town for the first time next week.
“Things don’t get easier from here on out,” said Murphy, who finished 15 of 27 for 115 yards in his first loss as Florida’s starting quarterback. “We can’t win with a performance like that.”
In a 14-6 win over No. 4 LSU a year ago, the Gators announced they once more could compete with the nation’s elite in one of the defining wins for Florida in head coach Will Muschamp’s three seasons.
The Gators’ offensive line manhandled LSU’s defensive front as Florida rushed for 175 yards, including a career-high 146 yards from Mike Gillislee. The Gators ran the ball 25 consecutive times to close out the victory.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who entered Saturday’s game leading the SEC in yards and touchdown passes, was rattled a year ago in Gainesville and never looked comfortable.
He rarely looked uncomfortable Saturday.
Mettenberger had a relatively quiet game Saturday (9 of 17, 152 yards) but did not get sacked. He was dropped four times in the 2012 loss at Florida.
“We just wanted to remind Florida who we were,” Mettenberger said afterward. “The offensive line really played great.”
Muschamp saw the same game as Mettenberger.
“Our guys couldn’t get off blocks,” Muschamp said. “You’ve got to get off blocks and make tackles. Our guys knew that coming in. We didn’t have enough of that happening.”
While LSU’s offensive line protected Mettenberger and opened enough holes for the Tigers to rush for 175 yards, including 121 on 19 carries for Jeremy Hill, it was a different story for Florida’s offensive front.
The holes were harder to find for Florida’s backs and, as for Murphy, time to throw was only a distant rumor Saturday.
“Too many times he’s got too many guys in his face,” Muschamp said.
Murphy was sacked four times and LSU finished with eight tackles-for-loss.
“He can’t pass the ball if we can’t protect,” starting right guard Jon Halapio said. “That’s all on our shoulders.”
Multiple players said the Gators had communication problems along the line and in the backfield on some of the plays Murphy was pressured. On other ones, they simply got beat by the LSU player across the line.
Florida center Jonotthan Harrison left the locker room disgusted at Saturday’s outcome but confident the Gators can solve their problems.
“These are all self-inflicted wounds,” Harrison said. “We have to find our mistakes and figure out how to correct them. We have all the tools, all the components, to have a dominant team.”
Redshirt junior walk-on kicker Frankie Velez accounted for all of the Gators’ scoring Saturday. Velez, who had not kicked a field goal since his senior season at Ocala Trinity Catholic, replaced Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips and kicked field goals of 44 and 27 yards.
Velez’s 27-yarder capped a 14-play, 60-yard drive in the first quarter to give the Gators a 3-0 lead. Unfortunately for Florida fans, that was one of the Gators’ few highlights.
A late-breaking highlight was the play of freshman running back Kelvin Taylor.
Taylor, who had only six carries in the first five games, rushed 10 times for 52 yards to help fill the void left when starter Matt Jones left in the first half with an injury.
Since Murphy replaced an injured Jeff Driskel in the first quarter against Tennessee, Florida’s offense was moving at a more efficient pace.
However, in their second consecutive loss in Baton Rouge, the Gators managed only 240 yards and their longest play was a 20-yard pass from Murphy to Demarcus Robinson.
While the Gators misfired plenty in the trenches Saturday, Murphy showed his usual poise. He then displayed his maturity afterward.
“I never thought of myself as the miracle guy,” Murphy said. “I was just the backup who had to step up and do what the backup is supposed to do, and that’s to give the offense a chance. We kind of fell short today. We can still win the SEC East.”
That was the goal before getting punched in the face by LSU. It will be the goal when they play at Missouri next week. Until then, it’s back to work.
And the work starts up front, where games in the SEC are won and lost.
“We’ve got to fix our issues or those goals don’t mean anything,” Halapio said.