By Sun staff writer Robbie Andreu and correspondent Graham Hall
LSU (3-2, 0-1 SEC) at No. 21 Florida (3-1, 3-0)
When: 3:30 p.m. today
Line: Florida by 1
Series record: Florida leads 32-28-3.
Just another Homecoming game
When Florida released the 2017 schedule, much was made of the Gators scheduling LSU as its Homecoming opponent, despite the athletic department having no say in who the university schedules for the alumni weekend. With that said, UF faced off against LSU on Homecoming in both the 1996 and 2006 seasons, and those seasons ended pretty well for Florida. Maybe playing LSU on Homecoming is good luck for the Gators rather than a sign of disrespect, as many around Baton Rouge have claimed.
Key is pounding the rock
Florida’s found success on the ground last week in a 38-24 victory over Vanderbilt, and the Gators plan to continue expanding the rushing attack. The Gators gained 218 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 51 carries against the Commodores, which gave UF three consecutive games of 150 or more rushing yards for the first time since 2015. Much of that success has come from freshman Malik Davis, who leads UF with 319 yards on the ground and a pair of touchdowns. “He’s about as natural as you will see running with the ball,” UF running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said.
Cautious with Cleveland
In last season’s rescheduled bout with the Tigers, Tyrie Cleveland’s 98-yard touchdown reception put Florida in the driver’s seat and enshrined his place in the record books. But this season, Florida will likely be without their top aerial threat in Cleveland, who suffered an ankle injury against Vanderbilt and is expected to miss today’s game. UF coach Jim McElwain said Cleveland couldn’t practice Wednesday and that the sophomore receiver would be held out to avoid further injury. “To this guy’s credit he was in there working his tail off trying to get back to play,” McElwain said.
UF’s shot at history
The Gators have scored in 365 consecutive games, tied for first on the NCAA’s all-time list. As long as Florida can put a point on the board today it will set the new all-time consecutive scoring record. And Florida’s offense appears to be hitting its stride at the right time, as the Gators are averaging six yards per play over the past three games. Saturday’s 38-24 victory over Vanderbilt featured Florida’s greatest production on offense since last season’s 40-14 win over Missouri.
Gators are wary
A week ago, there was concern Florida might take Vanderbilt lightly after the Commodores had been trounced 59-0 by Alabama the previous Saturday. The Gators did not do that. They took Vandy seriously and put together a solid, two-touchdown win. Now, there are some wondering if the Gators might have a little bit of a letdown because LSU is coming off an embarrassing home loss to Troy in which the Tigers lost both lines of scrimmage. But don’t expect a letdown to happen. This has grown into an intense rivalry game, and the Gators are aware of the talent the Tigers have amassed through excellent recruiting. LSU has been struggling since shutting out BYU in the opener, but the Tigers are healthier now and the Gators are bracing for their best shot today.
Welcome to The Swamp
Giving up a home game to LSU due to the threat of Hurricane Matthew last October was tough, but the Gators made the best of a bad situation by going to Baton Rouge and winning a home game on the road, upsetting the Tigers 16-10. Now comes the payoff. As part of the agreement reached between the two schools and the SEC office, the Tigers will basically be playing a home game on the road today. And that’s only half of it. With the series returning to its natural home-and-home rotation after this season, LSU will have to come to The Swamp again in 2018. Last fall, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva refused to budge on giving up an LSU non-conference home game that would have allowed the Tigers and Gators to play in Gainesville on Nov. 19. The result of his stubbornness is back-to-back games in The Swamp for the Tigers.
Those Tiger cubs
The Gators are a fairly young football team. The Tigers are even younger. Thirteen true freshmen have played this season for Florida, which is a pretty big number, but LSU has played a whopping 20, the most of any school in college football. Like the Gators, the Tigers are especially young in the secondary, where two true freshmen start — Kary Vincent at nickel and Grant Delpit at free safety. LSU also starts a redshirt freshman (Greedy Williams) at cornerback. Here’s another good indication of how young the Tigers are: only four players on the current roster saw playing time the last time LSU played in The Swamp in 2014. Those four are defensive end Christian LaCouture, fullback JD Moore, safety Ed Paris and tailback Darrel Williams.
Today’s game questions
• Will the Florida secondary play better today or get torched like it did a week ago?
• Tyrie Cleveland has been UF’s go-to receiver. Will anyone step up and make plays in his absence today?
• Can the Gators establish a running game against a fast, physical LSU defensive front that’s giving up only 126.0 yards a game rushing?
• The Gators haven’t come up with any turnovers in the last two games. Does that streak end?
• Will an LSU running back rush for 100 yards or more?
See Sunday’s sports section for Andreu’s answers
Florida 21, LSU 20
Florida pass defense vs. DJ Chark and the LSU receivers:
The Gator secondary is in rebound mode after the porous performance against Vanderbilt a week ago in which Vanderbilt wide receivers were getting open all over the field. Vandy quarterback Kyle Shurmur ended up throwing for 264 yards and three touchdowns, a performance that certainly has been noticed by the Tigers, who will try to exploit the shaky secondary today. The biggest test for the young Gators will be senior wide receiver DJ Chark, a speedster and potential game-changer. Chark is LSU’s leading receiver with 16 receptions for 338 yards. He’s averaging 21.1 yards per catch, so he’s going to try to stretch the field today, which in turn, could open things up over the middle for LSU’s other wide receivers. The middle of the field is where the Gators got burned the most a week ago, and a lot of that was on the coverage of the linebackers instead of the defensive backs. UF’s linebackers were out of position on a lot of those plays where the Vandy receivers came wide open. The Gators have had time to try and correct all those mistakes and are hopeful of turning in a more sound performance today. If they don’t, it could be more of the same, with Chark and the LSU receivers running wide open in the UF secondary.