BATON ROUGE, La. — Tyrie Cleveland hasn’t had the complete breakout freshman season fans may have projected for him as the highest-profile addition in Florida’s last recruiting class.
But he sure lived up to the hype Saturday, delivering the biggest offensive play in the Gators’ biggest win of the season.
Cleveland’s 98-yard touchdown reception early in the third quarter gave No. 23 Florida its first lead and the momentum — confidence boost, emotional lift, call it whatever — it needed to pull off a statement-making 16-10 win at LSU.
“Huge. Huuuuuge jolt,” defensive end CeCe Jefferson said. “Tyrie. Tyrie, man. Guys always say, ‘Do you see Tyrie? Do you see Tyrie?’ And I always remind them, you know this guy was a 5-star coming out of high school. He’s a big-time player. Was he the No. 1 receiver in the country?”
Jefferson was answered by a reporter that Cleveland was actually the No. 2-ranked wide receiver in the 2016 class (and officially a 4-star recruit), according to 247Sports’ composite ranking.
“He acts like No. 1 to me,” Jefferson said. “That’s expected out of him, man, and that’s a guy that just came in, he’s humble, he’s played his role. He’s starting to see success, man, and I’m just so proud of him and how far he’s come.”
Cleveland’s touchdown reception came after LSU (6-4, 4-3 SEC) had botched the snap on a short field-goal try and threw an incomplete pass to turn the ball over on downs at the Gators’ 2. Florida (8-2, 6-2) was trailing 7-3 at the time and had mustered only 60 offensive yards all game.
On the next snap, though, quarterback Austin Appleby hit Cleveland over his shoulder down the right sideline, and the 6-foot-2 true freshman shook off Tigers cornerback Donte Jackson and raced unobstructed the rest of the way into the end zone.
It gave Florida a 10-7 lead and marked the second-longest passing touchdown in program history, behind a catch-and-run 99-yard connection between wide receivers Cris Collinsworth and Derrick Gaffney.
“Tyrie ran by him a couple of times, so it was automatic what we were going to go to and that’s the call coming out,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said of that pivotal moment. “It was good to see him make a play and good to see (us) getting the ball in a playmaker’s hands.”
Austin Appleby goes deep to Tyrie Cleveland for 98 yards
No. 23 Florida defeats No. 16 LSU, 16-10 after getting into a pregame scuffle pic.twitter.com/rCDZMtkaAq
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 19, 2016
After McElwain noted that Florida’s defensive call on the game-ending fourth-and-goal stand at the 1 was “Hippo Diamond Stick,” he was asked if there was a catchy name for the pass play to Cleveland.
“Let’s see, ‘Deuce Right, Off Hack, Rippy Dribble,” he said, joking that it’s amazing the clever stuff coaches come up with at 12:30 in the morning.
That said, Florida has been trying since early October to come up with ways to get their top playmakers involved in the passing game.
Standout sophomore Antonio Callaway had his sixth straight quiet game (2 catches for 12 yards), but Cleveland and Appleby came through with the big strike the Gators needed.
They actually had tried the same pass midway through the second quarter on a drive-starting play from the their own 18. Appleby missed on the throw, but Cleveland wanted another chance.
“The first time we ran it, incomplete. A little bit overthrown by me. I got hit as I threw it. He came right back to the bench and said, ‘This guy cannot hang with me,'” Appleby said. “And in case anybody (didn’t) know, now you do know, Tyrie’s got some legitimate speed. He’s a weapon for us, and Coach Nuss (offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier) had the confidence to call it again. The exact same play, the exact same everything. I did my job holding the safety. We had great protection. I had all day back there. I gave him a chance and he went and made the play.”
Cleveland finished with 3 catches for a season-high 124 yards. He came into the day with 8 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown overall while missing two games with a hamstring injury.
Appleby, meanwhile, was 7-of-17 passing for 144 yards and that touchdown. It was his biggest win in 15 career starts, including his time at Purdue.
Appleby had one pretty key snafu again as he tossed a pitch a bit behind running back Lamical Perine on a third-and-goal play from the LSU 1. Florida recovered the fumble and had to settle for a field goal and that 16-10 lead, setting up the dramatic finish.
As for his big touchdown pass, Appleby passed the credit along to Cleveland, who is not made available for interviews as a true freshman.
“I’m just happy to get a win. I did the easy part. I took five steps, kept the safety in the middle of the field and threw it up,” he said. “Tyrie Cleveland’s the guy that should be getting all the credit. Our offensive line should be getting all the credit. They protected, kept me clean.”