GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida has made a niche out of tense last-second finishes this fall, and yet nothing will overshadow the program’s most dramatic game-ender from last season.
Especially this week, as the No. 21 Gators prepare to host LSU in The Swamp on Saturday.
The last moments these programs shared on the field together were, of course, the back-to-back goal line stands from the 1 to seal Florida’s 16-10 win in Baton Rouge, La., last November.
Gators coach Jim McElwain has not been too interested in going down memory lane this week, noting “These are two separate teams.”
But the fact remains that was one of the signature wins of his Florida tenure, and while the circumstances surrounding this game are not the same as last season it’s nonetheless worth revisiting.
“I definitely saw the fans silent and just saw everybody run across the field,” wide receiver Josh Hammond recalled earlier this week. “Definitely shocking, definitely was a great experience, but knew that we could get it done. Was expecting it. So just happy to see it happen.”
There was plenty of build-up to that 2016 showdown with Hurricane Matthew forcing a postponement from the originally scheduled October meeting in Gainesville. LSU fans pushed the narrative that Florida was somehow trying to dodge the game, the Gators responded accordingly, LSU drew a line in the sand on rescheduling options while ultimately getting the game moved to Baton Rouge in November and the teams engaged in a pregame shoving match on the field before kickoff.
Florida later took a 13-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter on a 15-play, 70-yard drive resulting in a 26-yard Eddy Pineiro field goal. LSU’s Donte Jackson fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Vosean Joseph recovered and the Gators added a 34-yard Pineiro field goal to make it 16-10 with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left to play.
The host Tigers answered with a 13-play, 74-yard drive to the edge of the goal line but came up short.
It was first-and-goal from the Florida 7 when Tigers running back Derrius Guice picked up gains of 2 and 4 yards down to the 1.
After a stoppage of play and a challenge of the spot, LSU fullback J.D. Moore plunged forward, but CeCe Jefferson stood him up for no gain. The Tigers called timeout with 3 seconds remaining to set up the final play.
LSU quarterback Danny Etling pitched to Guice, who tried to leap over the pile. Florida safety Marcell Harris and defensive end Jordan Sherit got around the edges quick enough to grab hold of the leaping Guice from behind while defensive tackle Taven Bryan was officially credited with a forced fumble on the play as well.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron later revealed that Guice went the wrong way on the play, which was reflected in Etling’s brief hesitation on the pitch.
— Brian Holland (@BHollandSports) November 19, 2016
Either way, it was a momentous Gators win as they clinched a return to the SEC Championship Game.
“That last play, I wasn’t thinking about too much,” Florida linebacker David Reese recalled this week. “I thought they were going to try to run or jump over the middle. So Marcell Harris just told me just jump over the line. So I’m like, all right, skip it. So I just jumped. I just jumped thinking it was going to be a straight dive up the middle. Guice got the ball — I think he went the wrong way, and we ended up making the stop. I just remember running off the field and saw my teammates.”
Said defensive back Duke Dawson of his recollections: “I was just praying we’d get the stop. That’s the only thing that was going through my head, just getting back to Atlanta at that moment. As a team, we celebrated in the locker room once we got back here. Unity, that’s one thing that we really talk about a lot and that’s one thing we’ve really been harping on. Just to have everyone corral around each other as one is always great.”
Hammond said there was as much tension on the sideline as teammates watched the game come down to a matter of inches.
“[I was] looking the opposite direction at the JumboTron. I didn’t want to see it, was scared to see what was going to happen, but you know, our defense was going to probably come out with the stop,” he recalled. “Once they made the stop I went and ran around the field and just had a blast. Knowing that we were going to the SEC Championship was definitely a great feeling.”
That game, from the commentary leading up to it to the way it ultimately finished, ensured that this clash Saturday between the Gators and Tigers would be one of the most anticipated games on the schedule for both teams.
Reese, who joined the Gators as a freshman from Detroit, Mich., last season, and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Brett Heggie both said that game last year opened the eyes to the significance of the Florida-LSU rivalry, which now renews on homecoming week.
“Last year I redshirted, but I did actually travel. And going into it, being a redshirt, I knew I wasn’t going to play, I kind of didn’t really feel the rivalry. But as soon as I stepped on the field, I could feel it within our players and our coaches and our sideline,” Heggie said. “You know, the crowd especially, and how intense the rivalry is. Especially the ending was crazy. I’m just looking forward to being a part of it and playing this weekend. I’m excited for it.”
Said Reese: “ There’s [nothing] like playing LSU at their home after the hurricane and stuff like that. It meant a lot to win that game, and it’s going to mean a lot to win this game in the Swamp this year.”
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