GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As if there hadn’t been enough already said about this Florida-LSU matchup, enter Tigers defensive end Arden Key.
When asked his thoughts on Florida quarterback Austin Appleby, Key countered instead with a critical review of the Gators’ offensive line.
“I mean, he’s under pressure. There’s nothing much he can do,” Key told LSU reporters Monday. “The offensive line’s not that good at pass blocking. Run blocking, I feel like the right side is stronger than the left side. They’re going to run behind the right tackle. We’re ready for them to come out. We’ll see what they’ve got.”
No. 21 Florida finished its 20-7 win over South Carolina on Saturday down three starting offensive linemen.
Center Cam Dillard (knee) remains out, left tackle David Sharpe (ankle) is also likely to miss the game this week at No. 16 LSU and right guard/center Tyler Jordan (ankle) is questionable as he tries to work his way back.
The unit has had its ups and downs all season, but the performance of the depleted offensive line was actually one of the big positives for the Gators over the weekend.
And, naturally, Key’s comments were not well received in the Florida locker room.
“They were talking about it in the locker room and then somebody showed me. After that, I was like, ‘OK, they were just talking. It doesn’t affect me,'” backup right guard/tackle Fred Johnson said.
Florida rushed for 171 yards on 4.6 yards per carry and yielded only one sack in the victory, but the line struggled mightily the week prior in a 31-10 loss at Arkansas. The Gators netted only 12 rushing yards in that game and gave up 3 sacks.
And it sounds like the criticism didn’t totally bounce off Johnson.
Prior to being asked specifically about Key’s comments, he alluded to wanting to prove some people wrong.
“It’s a good opportunity to just come out and show what we got and show that we’re not what everybody else thinks we are,” Johnson said. “We’re more of a dominant line than what people give us credit for, and it’s just a great opportunity for us to come out and show our skillsets and show that even though we’re (banged) up and hurt up a little bit, that we can still go out and produce.”
With Dillard already out entering the South Carolina game, Jordan had moved from right guard to center with Johnson taking his place. Jordan was then hurt on the Gators’ first offensive play and was replaced by little-used third-string center T.J. McCoy, who seized the opportunity with a solid performance.
When Sharpe went down at left tackle, left guard Martez Ivey slid over and backup Kavaris Harkless stepped into his place.
There’s no doubt facing LSU, which has tallied 24 sacks this season and is holding opponents to an average of 3.1 yards per carry, is a stiffer challenge than South Carolina, though.
Key, who mostly lines up against the left side of the offensive line, leads the Tigers with 9 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and 8 quarterback hurries.
“You know, the opponent’s faceless, but we just want to go out there and play our game and do our best,” McCoy said. “We’re not worried about what anybody says or anything like that. So I’m glad that he got to say what he had to say, but when we play football we’ll see what happens.”
While coach Jim McElwain expects Sharpe to remain out, there is hope that Jordan might have a chance to work his way back.
Johnson said his linemate has been progressing in practice.
“He’s coming back hard. He did go down with an injury and then he came back on the field saying he was fine. And I was just like, ‘It looked pretty bad,'” he said of Jordan. “But he’s out here practicing, giving it his all because it’s a big challenge for us.”
A big challenge and a highly-anticipated matchup that is apparently still adding extra story lines.
The buildup started when the teams’ originally-scheduled Oct. 8 game in Gainesville was indefinitely postponed due to the expected impact of Hurricane Matthew. Florida and the SEC drew criticism for the conference’s decision, and LSU then refused to budge in negotiations to reschedule the game, ultimately getting it moved to Baton Rouge, La., this weekend.
All of that — and now this — has upped the ante a bit heading into Saturday.
“Yeah, there is definitely a sense of rivalry, and it’s a strong one and a fluid one,” Johnson said. “And really, with the talk to us, the talk about us, you know what I’m saying, we really just didn’t focus on that. That just heightened the rivalry even more. And it’s really just for us to really just go out and show what we can do even though we had the game cancelled. You know, the game was trying to get taken off the schedule and stuff, to get it back was really a great blessing for our team.”