GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Will Muschamp, the Florida coach, made up a word after the game. It fit the occasion, though.
“We are a more enduranced team,” he said.
His Gators -- let’s roll with it -- enduranced LSU 14-6 on Saturday. This was not the trackball of West Virginia and Oregon and all those fancy spread offenses. This was two pythons squeezing each other in the muck until one wore out and gave in.
What’s stunning is the snake that died was LSU.
The Tigers were up 6-0 late in the third quarter when Florida’s Mike Gillislee cut through the middle untouched for a 12-yard touchdown run. From that point forward, Florida never passed again. The Gators ran the ball 25 straight times. Most of those were up the middle. A pitchout was a trick play.
Gillislee finished with 146 yards and both touchdowns on 34 attempts. After the game, he put on a T-shirt that said, “DAMN I’M GOOD,” and you might not like his fashion sense but you could not argue its truth.
You could also argue that Florida has rebuilt itself in the image of LSU, and also of Alabama, the two college teams that still believe in tackling and covering receivers and all that stuff. Florida doesn’t whip the ball around like it did when Tim Tebow and Chris Leak and Danny Wuerffel (Steve Spurrier just shed a tear and doesn’t know why) used to do. These Gators run, and they beat up your quarterback, and before long you stop breathing. The first person Muschamp praised in his news conference was the Florida strength coach.
It looked for more than a half that LSU was stronger. Florida got one early break -- an interception in the second quarter that put the ball at the LSU 38. But LSU sacked Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel on back-to-back plays, and the Gators had to punt. (The teams combined for 437 yards of total offense and 663 yards of punts.)
If you’d judged it at the half, you might’ve given LSU the TKO. But in football you have to fight all 15 rounds. And the longer they played in the Florida heat (estimated humidity: 124 percent), the more LSU’s strength melted away.
LSU linebacker Kevin Minter had a stat sheet from God: 20 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble. But late in the fourth, with Florida facing a third-and-3 at its own 16, Driskel rolled right and ran through Minter’s tackle for a six-yard gain. First down, Gators. Minter face-masked Gillislee on the next play, and it was basically over.
That Driskel run was one of two big plays in the game. The Florida defense made the other. It was still 7-6 in the third when LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger found Odell Beckham wide open down the right sideline. Florida safety Matt Elam caught up to Beckham inside the Florida 25 … then grabbed him … then stripped the ball from his arms. Florida recovered, and a 56-yard LSU completion became a Florida turnover. On Florida’s next drive Gillislee scored his second TD (he was touched this time, barely), and the concrete stands of Ben Hill Stadium rocked and swayed.
LSU never crossed midfield again.
(We should stop here and wonder about LSU. The Tigers figured to be even better than last year because Mettenberger was coming in at QB to replace Jordan Jefferson, who scored a 0.0 in the advanced statistic VORC -- Value Over Replacement Corpse. But, stunningly, Mettenberger has been almost as bad. Tiger fans are now pining for the glory days of Jarrett Lee.)
So now the college football world has to recalculate. Many of us thought the first two months would be an extended opening act for Nov. 3, when Alabama plays LSU and USC plays Oregon. But now LSU and USC have both lost, and a group of replacements are pacing outside the gate. Florida has put together the best résumé of any of those teams. The Gators have won at Texas A&M and Tennessee, and they’re the first team to beat LSU in the regular season in almost two years.
But this is the SEC, and so Florida gets South Carolina in two weeks, and Georgia the week after that, and there are many more chances to melt. Fifteen rounds, every week.
Afterward, Muschamp called the game “typical 1980 SEC right there.” He sort of tried to take it back, because 1980 is a hurtful memory for Gators fans -- that’s the year Georgia beat them on the Lindsay Scott play on the way to the national championship. But his larger point was sound. In 1980, Georgia had Herschel Walker, and South Carolina had George Rogers, and teams won by scores like 14-6.
Alabama and LSU have won national titles recently with the same kinds of scores. It looks like Florida is trying the same thing. Even Spurrier, at South Carolina, is playing small-ball (and ground the 2012 version of Georgia into dust Saturday night).
West Virginia or Oregon or somebody might have the missiles to beat the SEC tanks. But they haven’t done it yet. It’s a long season. And so far, there’s nobody more enduranced than Florida.