GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Remember the panic that set in after Florida’s season-opening disaster against Michigan? Remember how sharply opinions pivoted about this Gators team? The dire concerns about the offense and offensive line in particular?
Suddenly, the No. 21 Gators are 3-1, building momentum with three straight SEC wins and doing it while riding their offense and, yep, that maligned offensive line.
Florida finished off its comeback at Kentucky riding the back of freshman running back Malik Davis as he rushed for 60 yards in the final quarter alone, and a week later the Gators totaled 218 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground in rolling past Vanderbilt.
Next up is the much-anticipated, calendar-circled showdown with LSU (3-2, 0-1 SEC), which limps into The Swamp this Saturday off a humbling and humiliating 24-21 loss to Troy, a program it paid nearly a million dollars to have visit Baton Rouge, La.
The Tigers were missing four starters in that game, but they’ve also been blown out by Mississippi State (37-7) and looked lackluster in a win over Syracuse (35-26) so far.
So what do the Gators need to do this weekend to make it four wins in a row? Here are their 5 keys to success.
Follow the formula
It’s clear now, as it was before the season, that Florida’s best recipe for success is to ride its rushing attack as far as it will go and minimize the pressure on redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks.
LSU comes in ranked a respectable 37th nationally against the run (126 yards per game allowed on the ground), but it also just allowed Troy to rush for 206 yards on an average of 4.9 yards per carry. That would be Troy from the Sun Belt Conference.
The Tigers’ annual reputation is that of a physical, defense-driven team that can beat down or simply overmatch opponents up front. Well, maybe not so much this year.
Last year, Florida managed just 3.6 yards per carry while winning a 16-10 slugfest at LSU. This time, the Gators need more from their ground game.
The defense simply isn’t good enough to lean on in the same way as before. The good news for Florida, though, is the offense is finally starting to carry some of the load.
Freshman running back Malik Davis (319 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns, 7.4 yards per carry) looks like a legitimate star, sophomore Lamical Perine is coming off a 3-touchdown game and senior Mark Thompson looks like a different player after his 2016 struggles.
Each has earned a role in the offense. Davis should be getting nearly two-thirds of the carries while Perine and Thompson work in behind him, and combined they need to have another big day with the offensive line continuing the improvements it’s shown the last two weeks.
Growth at QB
What the Gators need from Franks, meanwhile, is to see him take the next steps in developing as a poised leader at the quarterback position, a guy who can keep the operation moving smoothly without self-inflicted setbacks.
The season-ending injury to quarterback Luke Del Rio last week was a gut-punch, as the Gators had seemingly found the right mix within that aforementioned formula. Del Rio’s veteran savvy seemed the right complement to the ground-and-pound identity the offense is trying to create. He knew how to get the unit moving, maintain pace and tempo and make just enough plays when needed.
Now that responsibility falls back on Franks, who unquestionably has a good arm and clear upside. He also has readily apparent flaws. The offense seems to stumble more when he’s in there, be it false start penalties, miscommunications, snap miscues, etc. He also threw two passes that could have been picked off in the red zone last week.
Florida showed against Vanderbilt it can overcome those kind of errors and still produce a touchdown drive, still win a game. But that’s not going to work every time. Those mistakes will catch up to the Gators at some point.
Franks is a redshirt freshman with four games of experience. He’s going to make mistakes. It’s not out of the ordinary. But he has to make less and less as this season progresses while developing some of that poise and savvy that only comes from game experience.
Rise and shine
Coach Jim McElwain has indicated that he doesn’t expect wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland to play this week as he deals with a high-ankle sprain.
Florida is already without expected star wideout Antonio Callaway, who remains suspended for his role in the Gators’ credit card fraud saga. Cleveland had filled the void as the team’s big-play threat with 326 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns through four games.
He has been Florida’s lone downfield threat, hauling in receptions of 45, 49, 50 and 63 yards.
No other Florida player has more than 107 yards receiving this fall.
Assuming Cleveland is indeed out for the LSU game, the Gators have to have somebody else emerge as a viable downfield option lest the offense become totally one-dimensional.
The best bets are sophomore Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain.
Hammond has just 6 catches for 93 yards this fall, but he has shown good chemistry with Franks while hauling in a long sideline pass from the young QB in the spring game and a 34-yard completion in opener against Michigan. Swain, meanwhile, has just 2 catches for 38 yards, though he looks like a guy merely waiting for his opportunity.
Saturday could be it.
McElwain admitted his defense did not play well Saturday against Vanderbilt. He went so far as to put the onus on the defensive coaching staff for being caught off guard by the Commodores’ game plan.
There were breakdowns in the secondary and plenty of blame to go around.
But the one consistent issue for this defense week to week has been missed tackles, especially from safeties Chauncey Gardner Jr. and Nick Washington.
McElwain defended Gardner, who has received the brunt of fans’ criticism, as a valued playmaker on the defense. And that is indeed what he was projected to be this fall, but he simply has to get better at executing when in position for a stop.
As usual, LSU has a couple very capable rushers in Derrius Guice (314 yards, 5 touchdowns, 4.8 yards per carry) and Darrel Williams (320, 5, 5.2).
Guice did not play last week due to an apparent knee injury, but he returned to practice Monday. Williams, meanwhile, was not practicing for the Tigers.
One way or the other, though, LSU figures to rely on its rushing attack as usual. And the Gators, in turn, have to deliver a better tackling performance this week.
This is a chance for Florida to really rally the fan base around this team.
The last-second wins over Tennessee and Kentucky were nice, but the Vols are clearly a program in disarray and the Gators always beat the Wildcats. Literally, 31 straight times now.
The win over Vanderbilt was encouraging, but it’s still Vanderbilt.
Even though LSU has not played up to the program’s usual high standards so far this fall, the Tigers still present the Gators’ biggest challenge since the opener against Michigan.
If Florida can run its winning streak to four straight while at the same time beating LSU for the second year in a row, that means it will have most likely assuaged some concerns about turning back to Franks, delivered a respectable defensive effort and shown continued success on the ground.
If Florida can win again this Saturday, it might inspire a few more believers as to what is still possible this fall despite all the setbacks this team has incurred so far.
The post Florida’s 5 keys for success this week against LSU appeared first on SEC Country.
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