Gators’ defense delivers in upset
Franks categorizes showing against No. 5 LSU as ‘big-time win’
GAINESVILLE — A pre-game, locker-room pep talk from Florida legends Tim Tebow and Danny Wuerffel offered the Gators inspiration.
Moments later, coach Dan Mullen provided the energy to a sellout crowd, whipping it into a frenzy while he hopped up and down in the south end-zone tunnel and waved his arms like a man possessed.
The stage was a set for an emotional and memorable day in the Swamp.
Mullen and the No. 22 Gators did not disappoint during Saturday’s 27-19 win over the No. 5 LSU Tigers.
“We keep finding different ways to win football games,” Mullen said. “We get punched right in the face and we don't flinch. That's something that's huge for this team.
“Huge win for us. Huge win for us going forward.”
With Tebow and the 2008 national-title team among the announced crowd of 90,283, the Gators (5-1, 2-1 SEC) and Tigers treated onlookers to an old-fashioned SEC slugfest followed by a fourth-quarter track meet.
Sophomore safety Brad Stewart, a New Orleans native, sealed the win on an interception returned for a
25-yard touchdown with
1:45 remaining in the game, sending the Swamp into pandemonium.
“Shoutout to Gator Nation because we couldn’t hear a thing after that interception or the drive after that,” Stewart said.
Mullen, the team’s offensive coordinator in
2005-08, remembers those days well.
“There's a Florida I know, there's a Florida that I love,” the 46-year-old said. “It was that way tonight. The Swamp was an intimidating place to come play.”
Stewart’s pick was LSU quarterback Joe Burrow’s first interception of the season. The Ohio State transfer suffered another pick to end the next drive along with an unbeaten start for the Tigers (5-1, 2-1).
Stewart’s play highlighted a wild fourth quarter that featured the Gators’ most impressive drive of the season and ended with UF's fourth straight win and its first against a top-10 opponent since 2015.
“Just a big-time win,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “It feels so good.”
With Tebow in town to be inducted into the UF Ring of Honor and the Gators’ trailing 19-14, Franks showcased the kind of versatility Tebow displayed during his decorated career. On the game-winning drive, Franks completed a 26-yard pass, had a 12-yard run and caught a 15-yard pass on a throwback from tight end Lucas Krull to set up Lamical Perine’s 2-yard touchdown run.
The touchdown put UF ahead 20-19 and was the game’s fourth lead change, the kind of back and forth that has come to be expected in this longstanding crossover rivalry.
“That was a heavyweight fight out there,” Mullen Florida defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga (92) tackles LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (22) in the second quarter Saturday in Gainesville.
The last four meetings were decided by a touchdown or fewer. A goal-line stand earned the Gators a win in 2016 and a missed extra point handed the Tigers’ a 17-16 decision last season in the Swamp.
Along with Tebow’s induction, his 2008 nationaltitle team was honored at
UF’s players wanted to make those Gators proud and show the progress the program has made under Mullen.
“I talk about the Gator standard. These are the guys that set that standard,” Mullen said of Tebow and the 2008 team.
But on the game’s opening drive, LSU quickly sucked the life out of the Swamp.
LSU attacked UF’s defense by going up-tempo and identifying a weakness, backup cornerback C.J. McWilliams. McWilliams allowed three complete passes, beginning with a
38-yard catch by Justin Jefferson. The fast-paced,
10-play drive covered 75 yards in just 3:17, culminating in 4-yard touchdown run by tailback Nick Brossette.
The Gators failed to answer on offense. Things soon looked bleak as the Tigers drove the field again. But on first-and-10 from the UF 28, Gator pass rusher Jachai Polite turned the corner and strip-sacked Burrow to force the Tigers’ fourth turnover of the season.
The play would change the game’s complexion. The Tigers stalled and the Gators came to life.
Special teams would be key.
Twice, punter Tommy Townsend pinned the Tigers deep in their territory. The second time, Townsend’s punt left LSU starting from its 5.
A third-down sack by linebacker Vosean Joseph and poor punt by LSU gave the Gators the ball on the Tigers’ 43. From there, UF rode tailback Perine, who grinded out 26 tough yards on seven carries. Perine ended the nine-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run with 12:30 to go in the first half.
LSU continued to move the ball, twice reaching into UF territory. But the Tigers only managed three points, which came on a 33-yard field goal by Cole Tracy for a 10-7 lead.
Despite the satisfying victory, the Gators also are not getting ahead of themselves.
“It's another step for us,” defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said. “We don't dwell on one game.”