Entering Saturday, a lot had been made of No. 7 UF’s 18th-ranked passing defense versus No. 5 LSU’s second-ranked passing offense led by quarterback Joe Burrow. However, after watching film, coach Dan Mullen said he thought LSU had done a better job in the running game this season than they had been given credit for.
His concerns came to fruition, as the Tigers (6-0, 2-0 SEC) rushed for 218 yards at 9.1 yards-per-carry. In total, UF (6-1, 3-1) gave up 511 yards on just 48 plays (10.6 yards-per-play), as they fell to the Tigers 42-28.
“I thought their ability to run the ball really was the big difference in the game,” Mullen said.
Mullen said they have three goals on defense each week: pressure the quarterback, stop the run and don’t give up explosive plays. They did none of those things.
“This is unacceptable for us, and we’re definitely going to put our head down and grind and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” cornerback Marco Wilson said.
Injuries Took Their Toll
Injuries have been a recurring theme for the Gators all season, particularly on defense.
Cornerback CJ Henderson and defensive end Jabari Zuniga each missed three games with sprained ankles. Linebacker Amari Burney missed two games with an undisclosed injury. Safety Jeawon Taylor still doesn’t look 100 percent following a shoulder injury.
UF’s defense persevered through the first six games of the season, surrendering just 9.5 points per game. The injuries finally caught up to them on Saturday night.
Defensive end Jonathan Greenard, the Gators’ leader in tackles-for-loss and sacks, left the game on the opening possession and didn’t return. Greenard was injured late in the Auburn game and didn’t practice all week but tried to give it a go on Saturday, Mullen said. Not only could Greenard have provided some much-needed pressure against one of the top passing teams in the country, but he’s one of the team’s biggest leaders. They badly missed his presence.
“Not having Jon, it killed our vibe,” Wilson said. “But, we need to learn how to play without some guys. Sometimes, someone’s going to be down, and we need to learn how to play without them.”
Zuniga re-aggravated his left ankle in the third quarter and did not return. No timetable was given for their returns.
“We’ve been just devastated with injuries,” Mullen said. “I don’t know a team that’s suffered more injuries than we have this year, and I think it finally caught up to us tonight.”
Offense Responded to Challenge
One of the things coaches and fans alike worry about when playing in front of more than 102,000 hostile fans is communicating and not getting rattled by the crowd noise, especially when you have a quarterback making his first career road start like Kyle Trask was.
For the most part, Trask and the offense handled the environment well. Tight end Kyle Pitts committed UF’s only false start penalty on their second possession, and the only delay-of-game foul came on special teams.
“Everybody was worried, was the environment going to get to our young offensive line and get to our quarterbacks that don’t have much experience?” Mullen said. “It didn’t. They handled it in every situation.
“I expected [Trask and Emory Jones] to be able to handle that, to be honest with you. Both guys, they practice hard, they prepare the right way, they’re both confident guys.”
The offensive line seemed to communicate their assignments well, as they only gave up two sacks and played arguably their best half of the season in the first half.
The offense racked up 457 yards, 28 first downs and converted 9 of 17 third downs. Trask’s pivotal interception in the fourth quarter was their only turnover of the game, marking just the second time this season that they’ve turned the ball over fewer than three times against an FBS opponent.
“We did a lot of good things in this game,” Trask said. “We showed a lot of toughness to come into an environment like this, and I think we communicated well. We didn’t let the environment impact us negatively at all.”
Trask threw for 310 yards, the first 300-yard game by a Gator since Luke Del Rio in 2016, and a career-high three touchdowns.
While losing a highly anticipated rivalry game is disappointing, the Gators have no time to sulk. They’ll travel to South Carolina next Saturday to take on a Gamecocks team that shocked the world by upsetting No. 3 Georgia on Saturday.
Last season, the Gators let the disappointment of losing to Georgia affect their play against Missouri in a loss the following week, Mullen admitted. They need to make sure that doesn’t happen this time.
“I think there’s two ways you can go: you can either lose and start pointing fingers, or you can lose and come together,” Trask said. “I think we have a great group of guys, and, at the end of the day, it’s just going to make this team better.”
The Gators have a rule after wins that they can celebrate the win for the night but have to show up ready to work the next day. The same thing applies after an emotional loss.
“If this would have been a win, we would have enjoyed it tonight and then get over it tomorrow and start focusing on the next team,” center Nick Buchanan said. “In a loss, you feel the pain tonight then wake up, and tomorrow is a new day. Focus in on a new team.”
Mullen pointed out that all of the Gators’ goals for the season are still very much in play despite the loss. To keep their hopes alive, they need to rebound quickly and have a great week of practice.
“Next week’s an even bigger game than this week for us,” he said. “One fun thing about being at Florida, the games just keep getting bigger as you go, and next week’s a much bigger game than this game. Our next four games are against SEC East teams. We completely control our own destiny.”