The toughest team won

There is no way to sugar coat what happened Saturday afternoon at Tiger Stadium. Florida’s 17-6 loss to LSU had nothing to do with poor coaching or bad schemes or a still young quarterback making his first start in the Southeastern Conference’s most hostile environment. And it wasn’t about that turnover plague which shows up periodically when the Gators venture outside the friendly confines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.  This was all about toughness. LSU had it. Florida did not.

Now this is not to say that the Gators don’t have some tough guys. They do. Just not enough of them, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, which is where this game and where most games against the better teams in the SEC are decided. Saturday, LSU’s guys in the trenches played like a bunch of grizzled, experienced war veterans. Florida’s guys, on the other hand, played like a bunch of buck privates who barely avoided washing out in boot camp.

LSU’s defensive linemen were quicker off the ball. Florida’s offensive linemen had more whiffs than the Oakland A’s had against Tom Verlander the other night. When the Florida coaches grade this film, instead of handing out Hard Hat and Iron Man awards, they need to give out matador hats, culottes, tights and capes.

It’s surprising that the LSU crowd didn’t shout “Ole’!” in unison every time Florida’s tackles tried to get in the way of  Jemauria Rasco or Danielle Hunter.  Getting in the way would have been an improvement because they rarely got close enough to stick a helmet on them. The Tigers got to Tyler Murphy for four sacks totaling 41 yards in losses and they were credited with five quarterback hurries, although you have to question whoever did the math on that. Murphy spent most of the afternoon doing his feets don’t fail me now impression. The only reason the sack and hurry numbers weren’t doubled or even tripled is because Murphy went Houdini on the Tigers about 10 times.

If Tyler Murphy were to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, you would be smart to put at least a few bucks on him escaping. His ability to escape the rush is the only reason the Gators still had a mathematical chance of pulling off a comeback win in the fourth quarter.

Over on the other side of the ball, LSU’s offensive linemen spent the day imposing their will on the Gators. This was the kind of game offensive linemen live for. Nothing fancy. Just line up and hit the guy across from you. Then you line up and do it again and again and again. The Tigers ran the ball 39 times for 175 yards against a defense that had given up 100 or more yards only one time all season. Jeremy Hill, who put on a tackle-breaking clinic the first half of the season, didn’t have to break tackles against the Gators. Breaking tackles isn’t a requirement when you’re running through truck-size holes. He had 121 of those 175 rushing yards and he did it for an average of 6.4 yards per carry.

In addition to being quicker, LSU’s linemen on both sides of the ball were tougher, stronger and meaner. Had the late Jake Gaither been around to see the beatdown in the trenches that LSU’s offensive and defensive lines handed to the Gators, he would have been grinning from ear to ear because, as he would put it, the Tigers were hostile, agile and mobile.

The Tigers were definitely hostile.

LSU played with attitude, not that false bravado you see so often in college football. You know the type – guys who spend so much time yapping and running their mouths that it’s evident they’re trying every bit as hard to convince themselves as the guy across the line. Now, LSU was certainly chippy and the Tigers did more than their share of talking trash, but it was because they were dominating the trenches. They played with complete confidence which is what you do when you know you are quicker, bigger and stronger.

It is what you do when you know you are tougher.

A week ago, LSU lit up Mississippi State’s excuse for a defense for 59 points in Starkville. In hosing down Mississippi State, the Tigers went high tech. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron showed off all the stuff he’s learned while coaching in the NFL. Whether it was Cameron’s decision or that of head coach Les Miles, the Tigers made a conscious decision to go Coach O on the Gators Saturday.

When you go Coach O, you rip off your shirt the way Ed Orgeron did his first day as the Ole Miss head coach a few years ago. When you go Coach O, you stand there bare-chested and dare the guy across from you to come get a piece if he’s got the guts. Then you stick a hand in the dirt and you fire off the ball and keep firing off the ball until you see white surrender flags waving in his eyeballs.

The Tigers ran the ball 39 times against the Gators and threw it only 17 times even though they’ve got a quarterback who is earning his way into the first round of next May’s NFL Draft and two wide receivers who can expect long and prosperous careers playing on Sunday. They wouldn’t have taken the pound away approach if Les Miles weren’t confident that his guys on both sides of the ball would man up and play tough.

If on Friday you had told Will Muschamp that LSU was going to try to jam the ball down the Gators’ throats, he probably would have lit up like the kid who got the pony for Christmas. Muschamp thought his guys were tough enough to handle a manhood challenge, which is what this was.

But unfortunately, the Gators simply weren’t tough enough. Not on this day and maybe not the rest of this year. Where they are now as opposed to where they were two years ago, is night and day different, but the Gators showed Saturday that they aren’t quite ready to swim with the sharks. The Gators are tougher than the likes of Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas, but who in the SEC isn’t? Vandy, maybe? Mississippi State? That’s about it.

Florida wants to be an elite SEC team once again and the way Will Muschamp wants to do it is with defense and a grind it out offense. There is nothing wrong with that philosophy nor is there anything wrong with Florida’s coaching. Muschamp is going to win and win big at Florida but to make it work he’s got to toughen this team up. Right now the Gators are good enough to win against the catfish that feed on the bottom of the SEC pond. If they wish to be good enough to win against the sharks whose fins cut a swath through the surface, they better figure out how to get tough in a hurry.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.