Underdogs. Undermanned. Undeterred.
Somewhere beneath a vexing season that appeared to be spiraling out of control LSU managed to dig deep with the type of effort that restored a sense of pride in a program one year removed from a national championship.
A week removed from a 38-point defeat at hands of top-ranked Alabama, LSU managed to shove all of that aside in a road matchup with sixth-ranked Florida where the Tigers were 23 ½-point underdogs and traveled to The Swamp with 54 available scholarship players.
What transpired was something that will forever be lodged in LSU lore when the Tigers overcame substantial odds and got a school-record 57-yard field goal from Cade York under adverse conditions with 23 seconds remaining for the go-ahead points in a 37-34 victory Saturday over Florida in a Southeastern Conference clash.
“Our whole focus was beating Florida,” LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron said of the SEC Eastern division co-champions. “Let’s wipe out the noise, block it out. Focus on what we can focus on and finish strong. I’m so proud of these guys.”
LSU had to withstand one final march where Gators placekicker Evan McPherson pushed a potential game-tying 51-yard field goal wide left on the game’s final play.
In a season where nothing’s gone according to script LSU (4-5, 4-5 in SEC) managed to salvage its biggest victory of the year, helping the Tigers avoid their first losing season in 20 years with their regular-season finale scheduled at home next Saturday against Ole Miss at 2:30 p.m.
“Throughout the year it was almost,” LSU senior free safety JaCoby Stevens said. “We almost had this and we almost got that. This time we finally got it. We got something we can build around, something we can just grow from. Wins like this, moments like these, we’re never going to forget these.”
Especially not one of the most unorthodox plays that kept LSU’s go-ahead series alive.
The Tigers appeared headed for a punt after quarterback Max Johnson’s pass to freshman tight end Kole Taylor on third-and six went for three yards. But the Gators kept the possession alive with safety Marco Wilson, who combined on the tackle, came up with Taylor’s left shoe following the tackle and immediately threw it 20 yards down field in celebration.
Wilson’s reaction came with stiff consequences for Florida, which was assessed a 15-yard personal foul penalty and automatic first down, enabling LSU to maintain possession at its 43.
“We needed a break, and we got a break,” Orgeron said. “I was happy. To be honest, maybe some people were disappointed that it happened. I just the saw three flags on the ground. I was happy.”
LSU moved the ball into Florida territory and called its second timeout of the game with 43 seconds remaining.
The Tigers objective was to reach the Gators’ 33-yard line which Orgeron believed to be within the range of York who was 8-of-10 this season from 50-plus yards, including a career-high 53 yarder last week against Alabama.
LSU ran three more plays with Florida native Chris Curry (17-64) seeing his most extensive action in weeks, but the Tigers had to settle for the 39-yard line when Johnson’s pass to Koy Moore lost a yard on third down.
To compound matters a dense fog, which appeared during the second half of the game, added to the degree of difficulty facing York who, following a Florida timeout, easily drove his 57-yard attempt through the foggy Florida evening and down the middle of the goal posts.
York’s effort tied the ninth-longest field goal in SEC history and was the second-longest this season among FBS kickers.
“For me kicking field goals isn’t aiming at the upright, it’s aiming down the line and finding a spot,” said York, who kicked three field goals in the game. “I could see the uprights. I just couldn’t see the ball flying the whole way. I just picked a spot and trusted it and it worked out.”
Despite falling short of his intended landmark for the attempt, Orgeron didn’t hesitate sending York out for a longer-than-hoped-for field goal.
“You’re on the road against one of the top teams in the country,” he said. “You’ve got a chance to win the game, you’ve got to take a shot. So, we took a shot.”
LSU’s traveling party didn’t include starting linebacker Micah Baskerville, was also without starting All-American cornerback Derek Stingley because of an injured quad muscle and lost starting cornerback Cordale Flott after the 9-minute mark of the first quarter after his ejection for targeting.
The Tigers also lost the services during the game of running backs John Emery and Ty Davis-Price and starting offensive guard Chasen Hines.
“There was a want-to about winning tonight,” Orgeron said. “I think the coaching staff did a great job.”
Johnson made his collegiate debut a memorable one, combining for 291 total yards (239 passing, 52 rushing) and three touchdown passes to Jaray Jenkins, Kayshon Boutte and Tre Bradford.
LSU’s defense, which surrendered 609 total yards, forced three turnovers with freshman cornerback Eli Ricks giving his team a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter with a 68-yard return of an interception.
It was the second pick-6 of the season for Ricks and it was a heads-up play and effort that enabled LSU to secure a second interception of Florida’s Heisman Trophy candidate Kyle Trask at the 10:26 mark of the second quarter.
Trask, who came into the game with two interceptions in 322 attempts, threw slightly behind where his pass hit the right hand of wide receiver Kadarius Toney. The ball then caromed off the facemask of LSU’s unsuspecting cornerback Dwight McGlothern and into the waiting hands of fellow cornerback Jay Ward, who was on his knees and in bounds for the interception – a wacky play that was confirmed by a booth replay.
LSU erased a 17-14 deficit by closing the first half with Johnson finding a wide-open Boutte for a 34-yard TD pass with 33 seconds left.
York closed the half with a 39-yard field goal after the Tigers defense produced the half’s third turnover when linebacker Ray Thornton pressured Trask into a fumble which freshman defensive end B.J. Ojulari recovered.
York capped a 13-point stretch for LSU with a 30-yard field goal for a 27-17 lead midway through the third quarter when Florida’s offense exploded for consecutive touchdowns and grabbed a 31-27 lead with 3:11 left in the quarter after Trask scored a from a yard out and hit Toney on a 9-yard pass.
LSU’s offense, which gained 418 yards on 86 plays, benefitted from a key 15-yard pass interference penalty on third-and-seven.
The Tigers’ drive, which got a boost on a 41-yard connection from Johnson to Boutte (5-68), lasted nine plays and covered 84 yards with Johnson hitting Bradford on a third-and-goal play for a 4-yard TD and 34-31 lead with 13:14 remaining.
After five lead changes, the game’s plot thickened more than the fog.
LSU’s defense forced consecutive three-and-outs and managed to limit Florida to a 31-yard field goal from McPherson with 2:51 to play after Stevens and Andre Anthony sacked Trask on third-and-goal, setting the stage for Tigers’ late heroics from York.
“These moments will never be taken away,” Stevens said.