Ridaught: Rivalry week – LSU at Florida

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

Where did you have the Gators after six games under first-year head coach Billy Napier?

Would you have taken a 4-2 start before the season began knowing Florida was playing three nationally-ranked teams in their first four games?

The Gators could easily be 6-0 but they also could be 1-5.

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“I think that’s a great assessment of where we’re at,” Napier said at Monday’s press conference. “I think there’s a lot of days you wake up and you’re thinking, man, I’m glad we’re 4-2. But you also think about the potential and that we’re a very capable team. We’ve been in the fight every single week.”

Despite an 0-2 start in Southeastern Conference (SEC) play, the Gators won their first SEC game this past Saturday with a 24-17 win at home against Missouri (2-4, 0-3) on homecoming.

Despite allowing Missouri to convert 9-of-17 on third down, including a scoring drive in which they converted a third-and-22 and third-and-15, plus gaining just 65 total yards of offense in the first half, the Gators found a way.

It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win. The victory snapped a 6-game losing streak in SEC play for the Gators, who won their first SEC game since shutting out Vanderbilt, 42-0, last Oct. 9.

“Offensively, I thought up front and on the edges we really probably played one of our better games against a really good front seven of Mizzou,” Napier said. “So a lot of good things on the tape. Always good to win, especially in this league and certainly to get our first one, I think, was a big step in the right direction.”

Redshirt sophomore Jaydon Hill, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, gave Florida its first touchdown against Missouri with a 49-yard pick-6 late in the first quarter. 

Hill was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week on Monday after recording two interceptions, including an interception deep in Florida territory.

Following Saturday’s game in the Swamp, we’ve reached the halfway point of the season.

“I heard a coach say one time that you’re always really close to being a very good team, and you’re always really close to being a very bad team,” Napier said. “And that describes our team in a lot of ways.”

Florida has a pivotal game against permanent cross-divisional rival LSU this Saturday at 7 p.m. at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in a game that could determine how the rest of the season might go.

With games at Texas A&M and FSU, plus the game in Jacksonville against defending national champion Georgia, it could be a must-win game for a shot at a bowl game.

The Gators (4-2 overall, 1-2 in the SEC) leads the series, 33-32-3, and owns a 16-14-3 advantage in Gainesville.

“Excited about the challenges that come with playing a really good LSU team,” Napier said. “Certainly when you play LSU, you know they’re going to be unique mismatched players on the field, and they’ve got lots of them. We’ve got a ton of respect for Coach (Brian) Kelly and the staff that he’s put together.”

The Tigers are coming off of an embarrassing loss at home to Tennessee, who Florida hung with in Knoxville just two weeks ago, before falling 38-33 against the nationally ranked Vols.

It knocked previous No. 25 LSU out of the AP rankings, although they are still receiving votes.

However, LSU has won the last three meetings in the series.

Florida’s defense will have to be much better on Saturday, particularly on third down. 

In six games, Florida has allowed opponents to convert 51% of their third down attempts (43/85) which ranks the Gators 125th out of 131 FBS teams.

Offensively, Florida needs to play to its strength.

The Gators rank third in the FBS with 6.4 yards per carry, including three players who rank inside the top-seven in the SEC in yards per carry (RB Montrell Johnson Jr. is second — 8.0 ypc, followed by RB Trevor Etienne, who is fourth with 6.8 ypc, while quarterback Anthony Richardson is seventh with 6.1 yards per carry).

LSU is 55th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 134.8 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. Tennessee rushed for 263 yards against the Vols this past Saturday.

Saturday’s game will likely be decided in the trenches, which bodes well for an offensive line that has only allowed four sacks, which are tied for the fifth fewest in the FBS and rank second in the SEC.

But the Gators have to limit their mistakes and they’ve got to stop turning over the football. Florida has 10 turnovers in six games.

If they can do that, then Florida has a chance of coming out on top in what should be an energized night game in the Swamp, where anything can happen.

“I am waiting on that game,” said Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller, who led the Gators with 11 tackles, including 10 solo against Missouri, and is third on the team with 40 tackles. “And I know the fans are going to do a great job packing the Swamp and creating that energy. I am looking forward to being in that environment.”

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