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Here are a dozen observations from Florida's signature 14-6 victory over LSU on Saturday in The Swamp.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME
The only thing senior running back Mike Gillislee failed to do on Saturday was set a career high for rushing yards (he came nine feet short). He succeeded in every other regard. Gillislee carried the ball a career-high 34 times for 146 yards, scored twice on a pair of 12-yard scampers into the end zone and accomplished much of that with the defense knowing full well that he was going to get the ball on nearly every single down in the second half. He started slow over the first 30 minutes but wound up averaging 4.3 yards per carry, which was more than enough to carry the entire offense on his back.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME
Junior safety Matt Elam was an obvious aggressor early in the contest, and it looked early on like that attitude may come back to haunt him after he picked up a pair of early penalties. What Elam did instead was make arguably the biggest play of the game, forcing a fumble after the Tigers completed a 56-yard pass down the right sideline. He also finished with a team-high seven solo tackles.
UNSUNG HERO OF THE GAME
He received his due early in the contest for a pair of booming punts that helped Florida get great field position (which the team ultimately squandered), but sophomore punter Kyle Christy was barely talked about late in the game when he continued to consistently boom the ball. Christy averaged 49.1 yards per punt with a long of 61. He also downed three inside the 20 with two of those falling inside the 10. With UF's offense floundering early, Christy gave the defense a long field and plenty of opportunities to stop LSU.
STAT LINE OF THE GAME
Zero - as in the number of points the Gators' defense allowed in the second half (or the number of touchdowns Florida gave up in the entire game). UF's defense was dominant throughout Saturday's contest, even when faced with a short field following an untimely fumble by sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel before the end of the first half. The Gators have not allowed a touchdown to be scored against them over the last nine quarters and are proving game-by-game to be one of the best defenses in all of college football.
ON THE RISE
Florida's offensive line, which got past some first-half issues in run blocking and pass protection and looked as dominant as any Gators offensive line has over the last three seasons. Redshirt junior right guard Jon Halapio visibly pancaked defensive linemen throughout the game (and especially on Gillislee's second touchdown run) while senior left tackle Xavier Nixon made blocks that the coaching staff has demanded for quite some time. No, the line was not perfect, but it was conditioned to the extreme and easily lasted a defensive front from LSU that was not only very talented but also quite deep. The unit was tasked with being game-changers for Florida and certainly lived up to that responsibility in the second half.
ON THE BUBBLE
The Gators' kicking and punting has been productive all season long (as have the coverage teams), but Florida's return game is simply ugly. Sophomore defensive back De'Ante Saunders looked lost as a punt returner, calling fair catches with nearly 15 yards of space in front of him. Redshirt junior wide receiver Andre Debose, while a proven commodity in the return game, has rarely had any running lanes either on kick or punt returns. UF's past electricity in this aspect of the game always gave the team a major advantage. Considering many of the players are the same - and the coordinator remains unchanged - the lack of production for this unit is a curious occurrence.
Senior S Josh Evans continues to impress each week as he has been living up to the goals he set out for himself prior to the season - be a team leader and productive player. Evans notched five solo tackles and a devastating sack on Saturday and was a visible leader on the field, helping Elam direct traffic in a secondary that still has a bunch of young cornerbacks. A special shout-out also goes to junior CB Jaylen Watkins, who registered his second interception in as many games and went full extension just to get his hands on the ball. The play gave the Gators some much-needed confidence early in the game.
After showing vastly improved pocket presence and better decision making over the last few games, Driskel reverted to old habits on Saturday. He was hesitant to get rid of the ball when faced with pressure, sailed a few passes because he anticipated getting hit and was so ineffective that Florida barely threw the ball at all in the second half. That is not to say it is all his fault. Driskel had never faced a defense as talented as LSU's before Saturday and none of the four teams he played previously are anywhere near the same class. If he can learn from his mistakes on Saturday, he will only get that much better in the long run.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Elam's strip of Odell Beckham with 4:13 left in the third quarter did not ice the game by any means, but it did take away a great scoring opportunity for the Tigers and gave the Gators' offense the ball back just one series after they traveled 85 yards for their first score of the game. Florida had already tired LSU's defense out on the previous drive, which gave the unit plenty of momentum and a huge advantage from the second they got the ball back.
THE GOOD NEWS
The Gators had already a strong belief in their team after coming from behind twice on the road, but Saturday's victory let Florida know that it can compete with even the best teams in the nation. UF got it done in a big way on defense and gave Muschamp a signature win, something that the program can build on both on and off of the field going forward.
THE BAD NEWS
It is no secret that offense is not the Gators' strength, but Florida must also make sure that teams respect the passing game otherwise Gillislee will be eliminated going forward. No one is respecting what Driskel and company did on Saturday. The worse news for the Gators is that their October has just begun with a top-five teams and potential top-10 team looming before the month is out.
A LOOK AHEAD
Before Florida can worry about South Carolina or Georgia, the Gators must buckle down and concentrate on facing the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville, TN. That game will take place next Saturday at 6 p.m. and air live on ESPNU. Vanderbilt is just 2-3 on the season but has already played South Carolina and Northwestern tough (and also defeated Missouri) in three of its first five games.