College football: Florida Gators face must-win game in Death Valley to stay alive in SEC race

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
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Florida receiver Jacob Copeland (15) runs with the ball after making a catch during last year's game against LSU at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Copeland is out to make a major contribution Saturday for the Gators.

To stay alive in the SEC race, No. 17 Florida faces a must-win game Saturday in Death Valley. 

So too does unranked LSU and Coach O. A year and a half removed from a national title, Ed Orgeron is on the hot seat after a 3-3 start (1-2 SEC) and back-to-back conference losses. 

The Gators (4-2, 2-2 SEC) are fourth in the East, though Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee all have ranked SEC opponents up next on their schedule. Of course, that’s irrelevant if UF drops another game.

“Every game from this point forward is a must win,” right guard Stewart Reese said. 

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That’s the reality after the Gators’ penalty-plagued loss in Lexington, their first sold-out away game in two years. They had trouble handling the crowd noise and finished with more flags (15) than points (13). 

If Kroger Field was problematic, Death Valley could have been disastrous for this team at night. One of several breaks Florida caught this week was a noon kick.

Florida looks to get its running game, led by Dameon Pierce (27), going against LSU on Saturday.

“It’s 11 actually their time. I love waking up and going to play,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “Always a challenge going on the road. Tiger Stadium is always a tough place to play. Got a great crowd, talented football team across the board at every position, so it'll be a big challenge for us this week.

“We just have to get in there and be mentally focused. It was a loud environment up there at Kentucky. I always know Death Valley is going to be a loud place. Anytime you go there it’s a wild, crazy environment.”

Mullen led an unranked Mississippi State team to a 34-29 victory at No. 8 LSU in 2014, but he’s never won in Baton Rouge as Florida's coach or offensive coordinator. For that to happen Saturday, the false starts must disappear.

The Gators were penalized for it eight times at Kentucky, but just once last Saturday for homecoming. Reese, who received the lone false start flag against Vanderbilt, is confident the offensive line has resolved the snap count issues.

“Most definitely we've addressed them," Reese said. "We're fitting them into the scheme now and we're gelling right now so there's no problems with the snap count anymore. I feel like this week is gonna be a lot better than it was for us in Kentucky."

Florida's O-line will also be tested by LSU's pass rush. The Tigers are tied for 11th in the country and third in the league with 19 sacks, while UF ranks fourth in the FBS with just 3 sacks allowed on the season.

However, LSU is missing two of its top four sack leaders and five total defensive starters are out with injuries. That includes starting cornerbacks Eli Ricks and Derek Stingley Jr., a preseason first-team All-American.

"They have guys all around the field, even though he's out," UF quarterback Emory Jones said of Stingley. "He's a talented guy. That whole defense is talented. They do a lot of different things with the defense. They man up a lot, so we'll have to win some one-on-one matchups. We're just going to prepare and make sure we're ready."

Jones set single-game career highs for passing yards (274) and passing touchdowns (4) vs. Vandy and finished with a 218.8 passer rating, which was first in the SEC and fifth nationally in Week 6. He's also second among all FBS quarterbacks with 478 rushing yards and leads Florida's No. 3 rushing offense. 

The Tigers are ranked in the 70s nationally in the four major defensive categories, but running back Dameon Pierce isn't underestimating them.

"It's an SEC defense," Pierce said. "Lot of four down, primarily. Not really extravagant on any pressures, they're going to show you what they're bringing, for the most part.

"They're going to have talented guys on that side of the ball, they're going to have athletes who make plays and we've got to scheme accordingly."

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That goes for LSU's offense as well, which features sophomore signal caller Max Johnson. He made his first career start last year in The Swamp and led the Tigers to a 37-34 upset win.

Their passing attack ranks No. 22 nationally this season with Johnson, who's thrown for 1,730 yards and the second-most touchdown passes in the SEC (17).

“Boy, he’s got a lot of gamesmanship in what he does," Mullen said of Johnson. "He’ll stand in the pocket and deliver balls. I think he’s an accurate passer, has a strong arm, can make the throws all over the field. Has size in the pocket to be able to stand in there and be able to make the throws. I think he also has that moxie. He makes plays, he scrambles around, he extends plays. He kind of has a great feel for that stuff.

"You look and you’re probably not saying this guy’s a scrambling, dynamic, running quarterback. Then you watch him move — not many people catch him. He’s hard to get your hands on. He does a great job making plays within the system with what they do and his decision-making. Then all the sudden you think, 'Oh we got him', and he improvises and runs around and makes a play. Those are the things that make him a really good player.”

For the first time this fall, Johnson is without top receiver Kayshon Boutte. He's first on the team in catches (38), receiving yards (509) and touchdowns (9), but will miss the rest of the season with a leg injury.

LSU's Jack Bech (22 catches for 272 yards) and Brian Thomas Jr. (14 for 188) are the leading receivers behind Boutte.

"It's going to be the same offense," Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Boutte's absence. "They have a lot of skill. They have a lot of talented players outside. Some of them are young, but they've got some dynamic guys that can stretch the field vertically. You get them the ball in space, they can make you miss.

"So it's not going to change what they do. They'll just distribute the ball to different people with him being out. We're going to have to make sure we do a good job of closing that space off and tackling and getting those guys on the ground because they're really talented outside at the receivers position."

The Tigers have struggled to run the ball without starting tailback John Emery Jr., who’s academically ineligible this season. Their rushing offense ranks 127th nationally and second to last in the SEC at 83.3 yards per game.

Florida has already held two SEC opponents  — Alabama (91 yards) and Vanderbilt (88 yards)  — to under 100 yards rushing this season. 

“LSU has a stable of running backs that are very, very impressive,” UF defensive tackle Antonio Valentino said of LSU tailbacks Tyrion Davis-Price (288 yards) Corey Kiner and (181). “Coach David [Turner] put an extra emphasis on making sure that we stop the run in practice this week, making sure that we thud our running backs up. Like, making 100 percent sure that we limit, as much as we can, all the missed tackles that we have at times. Just to help us out and get off the field on third down.”

Saturday

Who: No. 17 Florida (4-2, 2-2 SEC) vs. LSU (3-3, 1-2)

When: 12 p.m. 

Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

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