The Florida Gators had just taken a 7-6 lead on the LSU Tigers on Saturday. It was the third quarter and LSU needed a big play to jump-start its struggling offense and keep its hopes of another undefeated regular season alive. There was so much on the line for Les Miles’ team — the longest regular season winning streak and a No. 4 national ranking just to mention two.
On a third-and-seven play from the Tigers’ 21, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger came up with the big play. He connected with Odell Beckham for a 56-yard gain to the Florida 23-yard line.
But that’s where the magic ended for LSU thanks to Florida safety Matt Elam, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound junior.
Elam hit Beckham and stripped him of the football and Florida’s Pop Saunders recovered it stopping a threat. LSU was done in thanks to a great play from Elam and a concerted effort by a Florida defense that held LSU without a touchdown for a 14-6 win.
Will Muschamp finally had a signature win, and Florida’s defense was building on a reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the Southeastern Conference.
Elam wound up leading the Gators’ defense with seven tackles, which included one for a loss and one very big forced fumble.
“I think it’s a true example of finishing the play,’’ Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “And he not only finished, he got it out. What a momentum-changer for us. What an example of keep-fighting, finish the play. That is so important and shows the will and fight we have as a group.”
“I felt like I had to make a difference and that was my chance to make a difference,’’ Elam said. “He broke out and I was chasing him and I felt like I had to make a play on the ball. It was all instincts; I can’t tell you I tried to (strip the ball), it was all instincts. You’ve got to be a finisher in the SEC. That’s what we did. We played physical and finished. That was the plan.”
Muschamp and the rest of the Gators appreciated Elam’s play from the kickoff through the final whistle.
“I thought he played outstanding; played his best football game since I’ve been here; great effort and always does give great effort but was just a very productive game for him,” Muschamp said. “The strip on the long completion was just a phenomenal play. What an extra effort play. It wasn’t his play, but he came across the top and just made an outstanding effort.”
“That was probably the play of the game in my eyes,’’ Gators safety Josh Evans said. “That was a big turnaround. They made a big play and we made a big play right back.”
Florida’s defense has been making plays all season long. The Gators unit is currently holding opponents to 11.4 points per game and 284 yards per game. Eleven Florida players have recorded double-figures in tackles, 14 players have logged at least one tackle for a loss, seven players have a sack and six players have an interception. It has been made possible with added defensive depth, which helps the Gators keep fresh players on the field, especially rushing the passer.
“There’s nothing more exerting than rushing the passer for a player, that’s where you’re able to rush the passer more,” Muschamp said. “If you look at Tennessee earlier in the year, we were able to affect the quarterback more with four guys rushing as the game wore on. We’re able to play off blocks better up front because guys aren’t playing as many snaps.
“Some of our guys, Earl Okine, Leon Orr, Jon Bullard and Dante Fowler, played an upwards of 20-25 snaps in the game. Sharrif (Floyd) is now playing 40 snaps in the game, and we didn’t take many snaps defensively. I think that there’s no question that it’s helped our team as we’ve moved forward, and we’ve been able to play more offensive linemen in the game as well.”
Whatever it is, it’s working for the Gators.
“I think stats sometimes can be very misleading,” Muschamp said. “We have some guys that are playing well up front, and I think (linebacker) Jon Bostic has been very consistent and played well in every game at the linebacker position. (Linebacker) Lerentee McCray has played very well, (defensive lineman) Sharrif Floyd has been very disruptive inside. He may not get the stats that some of the other guys because he plays the defensive tackle position. The safeties have been pretty active through the first five games and I think we’ve had solid play at the cornerback position.
“I think that that says a lot about our depth and being able to play a lot more guys. Some guy’s stats are a little skewed probably because they’re not playing as many snaps as they did a year ago, especially in the front seven.”
Defensive coordinators will tell you that for any defense to be successful, you have first got to stop the run. The Gators are doing that, holding teams to an average of just 103.8 yards per game on the ground.
“I think we’re playing blocks better up front. (Sharrif) Floyd, (Dominique) Easley, (Jon) Bullard and Neiron Ball played well,” said Muschamp. “A lot of those guys are just playing blocks better on the line of scrimmage instead of running around people, and when you play good running teams you create run seams in the defense when you play on the edges of people instead of playing down the middle. I thought that was something we’ve made a lot of improvements with.”
Florida plays at Vanderbilt this Saturday and then the Gators face the two weeks that will make or break them as a true contender in the SEC East race. The Florida defensive mettle will be severely tested over the rest of this month by two high-scoring offenses — on Oct. 20 the Gators host South Carolina (and former coach Steve Spurrier) and on Oct. 27 Florida will face Georgia in Jacksonville.
If the first part of the season is any indication, then Florida should be ready when two of its biggest rivals come calling.