Ron Higgins: Short on bodies but long on effort, LSU finds a way to win at sixth-ranked Florida

LSU true freshman QB Max Johnson was a winner at Florida on Saturday in his first college start.

Of course, it came down to the last play.

Why shouldn’t it?

Why not pile on a little more drama in a 60-minute game that lasted nearly four hours with five lead changes, two ties and some of the most confounding plays and situations that Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t have even imagined.

A defending national championship team, a shell of its former magnificent self with just 54 scholarship players – you could have stuffed them all 10 Volkswagen vans and driven to Gainesville – found a little slice of Heaven in a season of hell.

The final score, LSU 37, Florida 34, on the Ben Hill Griffin scoreboard, burned through the Saturday night descending fog that swallowed two field goals of fate in the game’s last half-minute.

The first was Tigers’ placekicker Cade York’s school-record 57-yard launch for the eventual game-winner with 23 seconds left that he banged through the uprights with cold-blooded confidence and unflappable faith.

 “It’s not like it was completely, like, white, and I couldn’t see the uprights,” York said. “I could see them faintly. It was more I just couldn’t see the ball flying the whole way, but I just picked a spot and trusted it and it worked out. It went down the middle, right?”

The second was Florida placekicker Evan McPherson’s 51-yard game-tying attempt. It looked good all the way to the end until it tailed just enough.

When it sailed wide left as the horn sounded, it was as if all the pain and disappointment of the Tigers’ 4-5 season had floated away, if only for the night.

Gone were the stunning losses to Mississippi State and Missouri. And the 38 and 37-point beatdowns by No. 1 Alabama and Auburn respectively, as well as the parade of LSU stars opting out of the season including two in the last two weeks.

“Throughout the whole year, it’s almost been almost,” LSU safety JaCoby Stevens said. “We almost got this, we almost got that. This time we finally got it.”

The Tigers got it because they did just enough. They were also the beneficiaries of one of the most non-sensical unimaginable penalties probably ever in this 67-game series.

LSU’s defense allowed more than 600 yards for the third time this season and the second time in two weeks (650 in the 55-17 loss to Alabama) in what might be a first in Tigers’ football history.

Yet in six trips deep in the red zone starting at the LSU 10-yard line, the Gators gained just 26 yards including 9 rushes for 12 yards and 2 of 7 passes for 14 yards. Out of a possible 42 points (six TDs, six extra points), Florida scored just 20 points (two TDs and extra points) and two field goals.

LSU’s much-maligned defense forced three turnovers by Florida QB Kyle Trask, including cornerback Eli Ricks’ 68-yard TD interception return that gave the Tigers a 14-7 early in the second quarter.

“We probably had one of the worst starts that we have ever had,” Trask said of the first half. “Turning the ball over that many times, it’s hard to win games. I take full responsibility. I just got to play cleaner.”

Offensively, the Tigers’ 418 yards weren’t spectacular. But the offense, deftly guided by first-time starting true freshman quarterback Max Johnson, had no turnovers, lost yardage (18 yards) on just six negative plays out of 86, went 8 for 18 on third-down conversions (Johnson accounting for four) and had LSU’s second best rushing game of the year (179 yards on 50 carries).

Johnson, who threw for 239 yards and three TDs and ran for 52 yards on 18 carries despite being sacked twice, finally got a chance to show what he could do as a starter with a game plan tailored to his strengths and playing with the first-team offense.

“I was really comfortable,” Johnson said. “(Offensive coordinator) Coach (Steve) Ensminger put me in the right positions. The O-line did a great job protecting me. The backs did a great job and the receivers made plays for me.”

Including first-time starting tight end Cole Taylor, who made the play of the game by simply having loose shoelaces.

On third and 10 at the LSU 25 on the Tigers’ game-winning possession, Taylor caught a 4-yard pass. As Taylor was tackled by two Florida defenders including Marco Wilson, Wilson ripped off Taylor’s shoe and threw it 20 yards downfield in his post-play exuberance.

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 pickup to the LSU 40.

“I think it was a great job by (LSU equipment manager Greg) Stringfellow to loosen up that shoe before the play,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “We needed a break and we got a break. I don’t think I’ve ever played in a game when an opponent threw a shoe.”

Added Johnson, “Coach O said in the meeting yesterday (Friday) that one play was going to win the game for us. That was probably the biggest play. Our tight end Cole’s shoe came off and the defender threw it.”

Florida coach Dan Mullen said he didn’t see the shoe toss.

“I guess that’s a penalty,” said Mullen, whose 8-2 SEC Eastern Division champs plays Western Division champions Alabama next Saturday in the league championship game in Atlanta. “I have no idea what happened. We get the stop at the end to win the game pretty much and we get a personal foul. We’ve got to keep working, we gotta get better and we gotta make better decisions out there on the field.”

While the Gators played without star tight end Kyle Pitts who had been hurt all week and who was scratched in pregame warmups by Mullen, LSU All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. deemed himself unable to play after the warmups because of lingering quad injury.

As the game wore on, it became a battle of attrition for the Tigers. They lost four players to injury and cornerback Cordale Flott was ejected in the first quarter for targeting.

LSU could have folded up shop like it has done too many times this season. But not on this night and not after a week when star freshman tight end Arik Gilbert opted out of the final two games of the season and when LSU self-imposed a bowl ban for this season.

“Blocking out the noise was key this week,” Orgeron said. “We had to believe in ourselves. There was a want-to about winning tonight.”

And finally, finally, FINALLY, the Tigers had a happy memory this season to take home to Baton Rouge in preparing for next Saturday’s season finale against Ole Miss in Tiger Stadium.

“Wins like this and moments like these, like (strength) Coach (Tommy Moffitt) and Coach O said you’re never going to forget these,” Stevens said. “We’re going to be 50 or 60 years old talking about Cade kicking that field goal, Max diving and stretching on a third down for a first down. These moments can never be taken away.”

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