Last season, LSU traveled to Gainesville for what promised to be a knock down, drag out, no-holds barred, bare-knuckled brawl — a heavyweight bout where two fighters with heavy hands stand in the middle of the ring launching haymakers until someone drops. And that’s exactly what happened when the Gators lined up 23-consecutive times and ran the ball right into the teeth of an LSU defense that would have seven players taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.
“I love these games.” Linebacker Antonio Morrison said. “I’m tired of all these spread teams. I love these games where you just react instead of doing all of the thinking.”
The past two seasons both Florida and LSU have struggled throwing the football, instead relying on a physical running game and punishing defense. However, this season has panned out quite differently for both teams.
LSU hired former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator in the offseason and Cameron’s influence can be seen on both Zach Mettenberger and the offense as a whole. The Tigers are the SEC’s third-ranked passing team so far this season (291.5 ypg) compared to the 11th best passing attack (200.5 ypg) last season.
Florida is enjoying a modest improvement from their passing game as well. The Gators are currently ranked 11th in the league in passing yards per game (201.4 ypg) which is up from their abysmal ranking as the worst passing team in the SEC in 2012 (146.3 ypg).
With both the Gators and Tigers throwing the ball much better, and LSU getting into several shootouts already in the 2013 season there has been a lot of chatter about the potential that this game has to turn into a high scoring affair. Will Muschamp was asked if he would be all right with the Gators coming out on top of a 51-50 style of shoot out.
“Absolutely.” Muschamp said before a long pause. “And then we’d watch the film on Sunday and figure out what we need to do to get better, but I can tell you right now, I used to grab those stat sheets when I was a coordinator. Not anymore. There’s one stat that matters and that’s winning. Do what you gotta do to win games.”
As fiery of a competitor as Muschamp is and with the high expectations and standards he has for his defense, Muschamp was asked if he could physically survive on the sidelines while watching his defense give up that many points on Saturday. Muschamp laughed and repeated, “Winning is all that matters.”
The Gator players, however, are singing a slightly different tune. While all of the players echo their head coach’s sentiments that winning is the only thing that matters, the defense doesn’t seem interested in getting into a shootout against any team.
“I heard they’re high scoring.” Buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. “There have been some pretty big shootout games. Our job is not to let them score. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to try and do our best to not let them score 50 points on us.”
The maturation of quarterback Zach Mettenberger has played a huge role in LSU’s newfound passing attack. In 2012, Mettenberger was the 9th best passer in terms of yards-per-game (200.7), while throwing just 12 touchdowns to seven interceptions. It only took Mettenberger five games this season to surpass last season’s total and he’s currently on pace to throw for 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions this year.
“He’s throwing that thing man.” Morrison said. “He’s looking like a NFL quarterback.”
The Gators will try to put pressure on Mettenberger this week in Tiger Stadium, much like they were able to pressure Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen last Saturday.
“That’s kind of been our identity.” Linebacker Ronald Powell said. “Coming after the quarterback, getting after him, getting hits on the quarterback, pressuring the quarterback, making him make bad decisions. That’s kind of like what we do, that’s what we want to do. We want to play physical and force our will on people.”
And it’s a style of play that Powell says you can physically see alter a quarterback’s confidence throughout a game.
“Oh yes there’s a noticeable difference. A quarterback taking 14 hits in the game from me, from Fowler, from Bullard, it’s going to take a toll on them. It’s going to cause him not stand in the pocket as much and stuff like that.”
Even with LSU’s overhauled, high-powered offense, the Gators have no plans of getting into a shootout once toe meets leather and the game gets underway in Death Valley.
“We’re not going to allow ourselves to let that happen.” Defensive tackle Darious Cummings said. “Like I said Coach Muschamp is a defensive coach and a great mind and he’s going to adjust and we’re going to get it done.”