GAINESVILLE, Fla. – We should have seen this coming.
Florida and LSU have basically been equals this season. After the 17-16 loss to the Tigers, Florida’s point differential stands at plus-4, the exact same as LSU.
The only difference between the two had been that Florida had won close games against Tennessee and Kentucky while LSU had lost its close game last week versus Troy.
And that’s exactly what we saw Saturday afternoon in The Swamp. Two flawed teams fought through all of the mistakes, and Florida just wasn’t able to overcome the last critical mistake on a point-after attempt.
But the blame for this loss shouldn’t fall on kicker Eddy Pineiro or punter Johnny Townsend. No, while theirs was the mistake that accounted for the difference in the score, it was hardly the only mistake made in the game.
Here are the other issues:
Lots of folks are going to look at the 341 yards given up – and the 216 yards on the ground – and assume the Florida defense played terribly. Those people are wrong.
The defense got gashed early on with jet sweeps by the LSU wide receivers, but that was actually brilliant play-design by LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada. This included the 30-yard TD run for Russell Gage to put LSU up 7-0.
It became clear that Florida’s strategy was to play a safety deep while walking up the other safety for run support. You can see that from the unbalanced alignment of Nick Washington (8) and Shawn Davis (31). However, that meant that linebacker Donovan Stiner (13) was the only man capable of getting to Gage because the play went away from Washington.
You can see immediately after the snap that Davis starts to backpedal toward the middle of the field and Stiner gets pinned inside by the wide receiver. Washington has to come completely across the field to try to tackle Gage. By then, it’s just too late.
But defensive coordinator Randy Shannon and the defense made a key adjustment after that touchdown drive.
The Gators defense still kept its single high safety alignment going forward. But the change they made was that the safety dropping deep was not determined until after the snap.
In the clip above, you can see safety Chauncey Gardner (23) and Davis (31) gesturing to each other. They are signaling based on the side of the field that the jet sweep will come. In this clip, Davis is on top of Gage the minute the ball is snapped. This eliminated the linebacker from the play. The sweep was now the safety’s responsibility.
This adjustment shut down much of the jet sweep game that LSU was running. It’s not a coincidence that LSU averaged 25 yards per sweep on 3 attempts on the first two drives and 4.3 yards on 7 attempts thereafter. In the postgame presser, McElwain said the Gators didn’t stop the sweeps, but he is incorrect. After that adjustment, the Gators defense most definitely did stop it.
The defense played much better in the second quarter. The Gators got caught in blitzes a couple of times on the LSU field goal drive at the end of the half – once on an Etling run and another on a tight end screen – but again that’s just a case where you have to tip your cap to Canada for having the right play called.
The defense was actually lights out in the second half except for one key mistake. Most Gators fans will argue that the deep ball ruled a catch to LSU receiver D.J. Chark was actually an interception. They may be right. But the ball never should have gotten to the receiver.
When the ball is snapped, both safeties (Gardner and Davis) begin backpedaling immediately. This means the Gators are in 2-deep coverage. The safety’s job is to support the corner deep on half of the field. The linebackers then drop back into the middle of the field for any routes across the middle or come up in run support.
This defense usually fails because if a team is running effectively, the quarterback can complete passes over the linebackers but in front of the safeties. It is designed to protect against big plays on the boundary.
Because LSU is in max protection, there are only two receivers out on routes. That means Gardner has deep responsibility for one with Davis on the other. Cornerback Duke Dawson (7) has underneath coverage responsibility.
Gardner is late getting over, which leaves Dawson to fight with Chark. Gardner played a great game, but this was a mistake that led to an LSU touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
But overall, the defense played well. That drive ended in a touchdown with 10:55 left in the third quarter. The Gators defense only gave up 62 yards from that point on, which is why the offense had a chance to come back.
Would I like to see a shutout? Of course. But based on the limitations of the personnel on defense, those are going to be rare this season. Instead, the Florida defense is going to have to adjust based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. That isn’t what we’re used to in Gainesville, but it is where this defense is at.
I had a hard time putting my finger on exactly what was going wrong with the Florida offense live during the first half. But all of the drives seemed to stall out at fourth-and-1. It wasn’t that the Gators weren’t moving the ball or getting decent push. It was that they just couldn’t seem to sustain much of anything.
So I went back and charted the offensive drives for the entire game. That’s where the key to Florida’s offensive success and ineptitude became clear.
With Tyrie Cleveland out, it’s no secret that Kadarius Toney, Malik Davis and Lamical Perine are Florida’s best offensive weapons. They accounted for 79 percent of the Gators’ yards in this game and when they got the ball consistently, the Gators scored.
In the non-scoring drives (7), the Gators ran 28 plays and got the ball to Toney, Davis or Perine 54 percent of the time. On its scoring drives (3), the Gators ran 27 plays and got the ball to those three 70 percent of the time.
And it isn’t a coincidence that the Gators scored 13 of their 16 points in the second half. In the first half, those three touched the ball 54 percent of the time compared to 69 percent of the time in the second half. And if you look at the last three drives in the fourth quarter, those players were back to touching the ball on 54 percent of the plays.
Calling plays is difficult. It requires understanding what the defense is trying to do and then calling plays to exploit those tendencies. Sometimes you get caught in a bad play or guess wrong. But it sure does seem like trying to run plays where those three aren’t the primary target is counterproductive at this point.
For example, Florida opened the game with a 15-yard screen to Perine on a wonderful misdirection.
The misdirection worked so well because the offense typically rolls out right and throws to one of two receivers coming across the formation. They ran the that typical play a couple of times later – twice for first downs – but never came back to the misdirection.
Toney had zero catches – and even worse – zero targets. The Gators only ran the Toney/Davis combo in the wildcat once or twice. On the third- and fourth-down play-calls on the last drive, Brandon Powell was the target, not one of the three who had carried the load. The Gators actually ran the exact same play twice in a row. Same formation. Same route tree. On the first, Davis was in to pass protect. On the second, Davis, Perine and Toney were all on the sideline.
Sixteen points isn’t going to win a lot of games. The blame for this game lies squarely with the offense. And with the playmakers the Gators have on offense, it lies with the play-calling. When the playmakers got the ball, the Gators scored. This isn’t about a lack of execution or missed blocks. It’s about giving the ball to Toney, Davis or Perine and getting the heck out of the way.
Obviously, the play-calling is part of the coaching performance. But I want to focus on two other situations to analyze the coaching.
The first was the end of the first half. Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks dropped back with 25 second left and was promptly sacked. But Florida had a timeout. And perhaps more importantly, LSU did not.
The Gators would have had two timeouts had McElwain not been indecisive on fourth down on the opening drive. That is a mistake because those decisions should have been made during game-planning, not during the game.
Regardless, the Gators could have called timeout with 19 seconds left after the sack and tried to hit a quick out-route or two to get into Pineiro’s field goal range. They probably even had time to throw something over the middle if LSU was guarding the boundary. Instead, McElwain let the clock run out and the Gators went into the half trailing 10-3.
You might be able to excuse that as not wanting to risk a turnover. I hate that rationale, but I do understand it. But there’s no excuse for what happened after the Gators turned the ball over on downs in the fourth quarter.
There was just 1:33 left and, for some reason, LSU decided to run the ball instead of just dancing around a little bit after the snap and taking a knee. McElwain has to instruct his defense to let LSU score here.
If LSU scores, you’re down 24-16 with 1:15 left and no timeouts. With the strategy McElwain chose, the best case scenario was LSU would punt out of the end zone on fourth down as time expired.
The end of the first half was bad. This was just inexcusable. And it’s not as if McElwain hasn’t thought about this type of situation recently. He’s the guy who criticized Malik Davis for scoring against Vanderbilt last week instead of taking a knee. He’s seen his own team screw this up and give the other team a shot they otherwise shouldn’t have.
Florida is developing an identity on offense but — unlike the game against Vanderbilt — did not have the will to stick with it consistently. Florida also has a defense that is going to give up some yards, but likely will keep it in most games.
Going in, I expected LSU to win. I expected the Florida play-calling to be inconsistent. I actually expected the defense to have more trouble with LSU than it did.
What I didn’t expect was to see McElwain self-destruct and turn in a Butch Jones-level masterpiece.
If Florida gets the ball back after letting LSU score, its chances of scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion are small. But that’s better than the zero percent chance of winning that came from the path that McElwain chose.
There was lots of chatter after the game on Twitter about McElwain and hot seats. I don’t think that is appropriate at this point, coming off of two SEC East titles and holding a 3-1 record in the SEC currently.
What I do think is appropriate is pointing out that the LSU game wasn’t lost by the players. They played hard, committed zero turnovers and only had 6 penalties. When they were put in the correct situations, they executed the vast majority of the time.
That means there’s only one place to point for this loss. And the fingers of Gator Nation are going to be aimed straight at the head coach and the offensive coordinator. That doesn’t mean they should be fired. But it does mean they need to adapt and improve.
McElwain finally ran out of pixie dust and is now 9-2 in one-score games at Florida. That’s still an outstanding record that says something about his in-game coaching.
But boy, did he ever earn loss No. 2. This one is on him.