LSU leaves Florida’s national championship dreams in a fog of disappointment

LSU kicker Cade York (36) kicks a school-record 57-yard field goial with 23 seconds left to give the Tigers a 37-34 upset at No. 6 Florida on Saturday night. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

Finally, through the fog and the tears of joy and nothing left to play for but avoiding a losing season. LSU drove a dagger into No. 6 Florida’s College Football Playoff dreams Saturday night in Gainesville.

Sophomore placekicker Cade York boomed a school-record 57-yard field goal with 23 seconds left, then watched Florida placekicker Evan McPherson’s 51-yard game-tying attempt drift wide left as the clock expired to give the undermanned Tigers a stunning 37-34 upset in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

“That’s a classic SEC win right there,” LSU safety JaCoby Stevens said. “Throughout the whole year, it’s almost been almost. We almost got this, we almost got that. This time we finally got it.”

LSU (4-5) was a 23½-point underdog to the Gators (8-2) and had just 53 scholarship players available when star cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. said after warming up in pre-game he was too hurt to play.

Yet, behind first-time freshman starting quarterback Max Johnson and a defense that forced Florida Heisman Trophy candidate QB Kyle Trask into two interceptions and a fumble, the Tigers took advantage of almost every break that came their way.

None was bigger or more unexpected than a Florida penalty that kept LSU’s final drive alive.

On third and 10 at the LSU 25, Johnson dumped a short pass to tight end Kole Taylor for a 4-yard gain. As Taylor was tackled by two Florida defenders including Marco Wilson, Wilson ripped off Taylor’s shoe and threw it 20 yards downfield.

Instead of LSU having to punt with around two minutes left to play, Florida was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave the Tigers an automatic first down and a 15-yard advance to the LSU 40.

Six plays later from the Florida 39, LSU hurried York and the kicking team on the field because the clock was running and the Tigers had no timeouts.

But Florida did York and LSU a favor by calling a timeout. It gave York a chance to settle and peer through the fog that was enveloping the field.

“When I got out there it was a little blurry,” said York, who drilled his kick right down the middle. “I knew where the uprights were, I could see them faintly. I couldn’t see the ball fly the whole way. I just picked a spot and trusted it.”

When McPherson missed his game-tying attempt, the Tigers had made their head coach a prophet.

“I told the team and coaches last night,” said LSU’s Ed Orgeron, “that when we beat Florida this could be the building block to turn around our program just like it did in 2017 (when LSU won at Florida 17-16 after being upset by Troy 24-21). It gives us a lot of confidence.”

Johnson, the Tigers’ lefty QB and son of former NFL Brad Johnson, accounted for 291 of LSU’s 418 yards total offense. He completed 21 of 36 passes to seven different receivers for 239 yards and three TDs, and also ran for 52 yards on 18 carries.

He boosted a running attack that gained 135 yards, led by Chris Curry who ran for 64 yards on 17 attempts and Ty Davis-Price with 55 yards on 8 carries.

Kayshon Boutte led all LSU pass catchers with 5 receptions for 108 yards and a TD, and Jaray Jenkins added 4 catches for 65 yards and a score.

LSU’s defense gave up 609 yards, the third time this season the Tigers have allowed 600 or more yards. Trask accounted for most of those yards by completing 29 of 47 passes for 474 yards and two TDS.

But his three turnovers, all in the first half, gave LSU’s defense confidence to keep fighting. After Florida scored TDs on its first two possessions of the second half, the Tigers forced three straight Gators punts and were able to swing momentum back toward the Purple and Gold.   

Florida had 356 yards total offense in the first half, including 356 passing. It also had the ball almost 6½ minutes longer than LSU. Yet LSU scored 13 points off three Florida turnovers and led 24-17 at the break.

The Gators had the ball in the LSU red zone five times in eight possessions in the opening two quarters, yet only came away with a Trask 1-yard TD run, a Trask 19-yard scoring strike to Jacob Copeland and a 23-yard McPherson field goal.

On Florida’s opening possession of the game, a 74-yard Gators’ drive died one-yard short of the end zone when running back Malik Davis got stuffed for no gain by LSU safeties Stevens and Maurice Hampton on fourth and goal at the LSU 1.

Then with LSU leading 14-7 after Eli Ricks 68-yard TD interception return of a Trask pass with 12:59 left in the second quarter, the undeterred Trask came back strong on the next series.

His 50-yard pass to Trevon Grimes had Florida at the LSU 15 ready to strike. But on the next play, his pass ricocheted off a receiver, then was deflected by Dwight McGlothern and finally caught by fellow Tigers’ cornerback Jay Ward for the interception inches in bounds at the LSU 6.

Even after Florida finally took the lead with 10 straight points at 17-14, the Tigers countered with 10 consecutive points of their own in the final 2:25 of the half.

Johnson guided the Tigers 72 yards in nine plays in 1:52. He converted two third downs and then found a wide-open Boutte for a 34-yard TD with 33 seconds left before halftime for a 21-17 lead after York’s extra point.

But York wasn’t done for the half.

Florida was trying to get more points when Trask fumbled when he was hit by LSU’s Ray Thornton and the Tigers’ BJ Ojulari recovered at the Florida 19.

It set up York’s 39-yard field goal as the half ended.

LSU tacked on a 30-yard York field goal to open the second half with 8:29 left in the third quarter. The Tigers converted three third down conversions on the 17-play, 63-yard drive that ate 6:31 of clock.

LSU had a third-and-goal at the Florida 2 when right guard Chasen Hines was called for a holding penalty and Johnson’s third-down pass was dropped by running back Tre Bradford.

From then on, it became a battle of attrition for the already depth-depleted Tigers with starting offensive linemen Hines and right tackle Austin Deculus going down with injuries on two successive series.

Meanwhile, Florida’s offense shifted into high gear.

After York’s field goal stretched LSU’s lead to 10 points, Trask took over the game against the Tigers’ tired, inexperienced secondary.

Trask led two straight scoring drives covering a combined 156 yards in nine plays, scoring on a 1-yard run and throwing a 9-yard TD to Kadarius Toney for a 31-27 lead with 3:11 left in the third quarter.

When the LSU defense finally got a stop following Florida’s TD marches, the Tigers battled back with an 84-yard scoring drive. Johnson put LSU back in front at 34-31 with a 4-yard TD pass to running back Tae Bradford with 13:14 remaining.

LSU had a chance to add points on its next two possessions, but the Tigers’ play-calling turned extremely conservative trying to eat clock.

The second of those possessions started at the Florida 48 with 7:28 left to play. LSU got one yards in three plays – two Chris Curry runs and an incomplete Johnson pass – and Florida took over at its 15 following a Zach Von Rosenberg punt.

LSU did well holding Florida to McPherson’s game-tying 31-yard field goal at 31-31 with 2:51 left before the Tigers’ game-winning drive. 

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