BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Florida coach Jim McElwain watched his Gators overcome injuries, an extra road game and repeated adversity in the shadow of their own goal line. That should be valuable experience for a feisty football team that’ll face long odds again when it meets top-ranked Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game in a couple weeks.
Florida’s defense stuffed LSU’s Derrius Guice on a do-or-die run from the 1-yard line in the final seconds, and the No. 21 Gators held on for a tension-filled 16-10 victory that clinched the Southeastern Conference East Division on Saturday.
"I can’t tell you how proud I am of our players and our staff, and I’m happy for our Gator fans who don’t think we’re very good, but all we do is end up back in Atlanta," said McElwain, whose Gators (8-2, 6-2 SEC, No. 23 CFP) also won the SEC East last year.
The final play capped a defensive struggle in which No. 16 LSU converted a fourth-and-10 play on its final drive, only to get stopped on back-to-back runs from the 1 to end the game. Fullback J.D. Moore came up short on third down.
Florida quarterback Austin Appleby completed only seven passes on 17 attempts, but one of his connections went for a pivotal 98-yard touchdown to Tyrie Cleveland. Eddy Piniero scored the rest of Florida’s points on field goals of 36, 24 and 34 yards.
LSU (6-4, 4-3 SEC, No. 16 CFP) controlled most of the game and held statistical advantages, outgaining Florida 423 yards to 270 and holding possession for 34:02. LSU also led 7-0 after Guice’s early 1-yard touchdown.
But on three occasions, the Tigers failed to score after driving inside Florida’s 10 — the first time because of Guice’s fumble in the first half and the second time because of a botched field goal in the third quarter. LSU’s lone field goal came three failed plays after the Tigers had a first-and-goal from the 4.
"We just shot ourselves in the foot. We had a lot of opportunities," said LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron , whose prospects of keeping the job long term weren’t helped by the result.
Had the Tigers, who came in as two-touchdown favorites, converted a few more of those opportunities, they’d still be in good shape to get the SEC’s Sugar Bowl bid.
Florida: Missing a handful of starters, the Gators played with a lot of heart and relied heavily on their elite defense to pull off the upset.
LSU: The Tigers’ two turnovers and botched field goal turned what could have been a fairly comfortable victory into a losing struggle.
McElwain sounded eager to revisit questions about whether his program tried to dodge the Tigers when the original game in Florida was postponed by Hurricane Matthew in early October. Florida balked at initial offers to move the game to LSU as the storm approached, or to play at home one or two days after the originally scheduled time. That left the SEC little choice but to postpone the game until both teams could buy out non-league opponents. But LSU refused to give up a home game, forcing Florida to travel if it wanted a shot to play for a conference title.
"The way I look at it, they got what they deserved — and it should have been worse," McElwain said.
Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor mocked Florida’s critics by making light of the matter.
"We didn’t have no courage," he said. "I guess out of fear we fought back."
LSU starting defensive back Donte Jackson was in coverage on Appleby’s long scoring pass down the right sideline to Cleveland, who then escaped Jackson’s grasp after the catch near midfield. After LSU went down 13-10 in the fourth quarter, Jackson fumbled a kickoff return by running into his own teammate, setting up Florida’s final field goal.
LSU lost a key defender in the first half when middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith needed help off the field. He spent the rest of the game on the sideline with his left knee heavily wrapped. LSU star running back Leonard Fournette, who played despite being banged up last week, came out of the game for good after being stopped short on a third-and-goal play in the second half.
The two teams scuffled near the middle of the field about an hour before kickoff. Several people viewing warmups captured video they posted on social media. It was mostly yelling and shoving as coaches and police working security converged quickly to break it up. Some players also acted as peacemakers. One video captured Fournette pushing Florida defensive backs coach Torrian Gray away from a cluster of LSU players and coaches.
Florida is likely to climb back into the Top 20. LSU might not fall out of the poll , but will be punished for its squandered opportunities.
Florida: The Gators renew their non-conference rivalry with Florida State in Tallahassee.
LSU: The Tigers visit Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night.