In a game where one critical play here, one critical play there was going to decide the outcome Saturday, “The Eraser” stood head and shoulders above everybody else. Reggie Nelson made his presence felt early and often, whether on special teams or from his free safety position. If he wasn’t making a play, he was altering one with his presence.
By the time the Gators walked away with a 23-10 win over LSU in this last man standing slugfest for SEC supremacy, the Tigers were very well acquainted with Mr. Nelson. Just because they knew where he was at all times didn’t exactly help, however. From his position in the center of the field, Nelson changed everything LSU tried to do. On this day, Reggie Nelson was indeed the difference maker.
For years to come fans who were there at The Swamp or who were part of a CBS national television audience will rave about Tim Tebow’s fourth or fifth coming out party — it seems there is one nearly every week so it’s getting hard to keep track — and well they should. Tebow is just a freshman, already somewhat of a folk hero even though he’s only been on campus since January, and he’s going to be good. Really, really, really good. He was good Saturday and he had a big hand in Florida’s win, but the one player that made the greatest impact was Reggie Nelson, the Palm Bay junior that is making a habit of altering the outcome of games.
“If someone said, ‘okay, you have a draft choice,’ I might take Reggie Nelson number one,” said Coach Urban Meyer after Nelson delivered three crushing hits, created at least one interception, blocked a punt and generally intimidated LSU all over the field Saturday as the fifth-ranked Gators upped their record to 6-0 with a decisive 23-10 win over the ninth-ranked Tigers before a crowd of 90,714 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. “If I wanted to wear him out I would have him all over the field doing everything for us. We play a lot of one-high so he has to be ‘The Eraser.’ I think their guy is right up there — Landry — but I think we have the best free safety in college football.”
In a first half when it seemed LSU was constantly knocking on the door of the Florida goal line, Nelson delivered a hit that knocked LSU’s Brandon LaFell well into next week just as Ryan Smith picked off the first of his two passes. Lafell tried to stagger to his feet but sat back down, dazed, confused and erased.
As part of a third quarter frenzy that saw the Gators use defense and special teams to take control of the game, Nelson broke through the LSU protectors to block Chris Jackson’s punt to set the Gators up with extraordinary field position. Even though Florida didn’t capitalize, the blocked punt sent a message. Jackson, who was the SEC’s special teams Player of the Week last year when he averaged close to 50 yards a punt against the Gators, shanked his only other punt, one that Nelson came fairly close to blocking.
In the fourth quarter, LSU sent wide receiver Early Doucet across the middle on a crossing route. JaMarcus Russell’s throw was high and maybe Doucet was looking for Nelson instead of concentrating on the ball. Nelson and the ball arrived simultaneously. The ball wound up in the end zone. Doucet wound up on the turf, probably wondering if soup is on the menu tonight. Even though Nelson was called for pass interference, that jarring hit had everything to do with Smith’s second interception of the game.
Once again, the Tigers ran a crossing route and once again the receiver paid the price, only this time the ball caromed into the waiting hands of Smith, who has four interceptions in his last two games.
Nelson blocked a Chris Jackson punt. In the fourth quarter, with LSU still close enough to make the game a nail-biter, he delivered another crushing hit on an LSU wide receiver just as the ball arrived and Smith gathered in the carom to pretty much seal the deal for Florida.
“You have a guy that can cover so much ground and come up and hit like that it helps your confidence as a corner and it lets you play a little free,” said Smith, the Utah transfer that has settled in as a playmaking corner for the Gators. “You know you have a guy behind you that can make plays. He’s amazing.”
Nelson was amazing but he wasn’t Florida’s only playmaker.
Tebow had a hand in all three of Florida’s touchdowns, running for the first one on a one-yard power play off the left side of the Florida line to tie the game at 7-7 in the first quarter, throwing for the go-ahead touchdown to Tate Casey near the end of the first half, and then connecting with Louis Murphy for the Gators’ final score in the third quarter.
Smith, who had two interceptions last week in Florida’s win over Alabama, had two interceptions, two pass breakups — both near interceptions and one of those he could have taken to the house — plus a tackle for a three-yard loss when he blew up a bubble screen.
Freshman Percy Harvin got in on three key plays plays, catching two passes for 18 yards, both of which converted into first downs, and running once from the tailback position for nine yards.
Senior defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, back from a two-game suspension, led Florida with eight tackles including one for loss and he contributed a pass breakup.
Junior strong safety Tony Joiner picked off the Russell pass that ended LSU’s chances once and for all, but he also had two tackles for loss.
Junior linebacker Brandon Siler had seven tackles but his best play was when he rooted under a pile of humanity in the second quarter to come away with a Russell fumble at the Florida one.
Senior punter Eric Wilbur averaged 51 yards on his four punts. On the first of his punts, Chevis Jackson muffed the ball and senior Lutrell Alford came up with the ball for the Gators on the LSU 19, a 58-yard reversal of fortune for the Gators. In the fourth quarter, another 50-plus yard effort was rewarded when freshman Wondy Pierre-Louis was the first man down to nail Chevis Jackson at the LSU six.
Freshman Riley Cooper was the first man down on the opening kickoff of the second half, delivering the hit that separated Early Doucet from the ball at the three yard line. The ball rolled into the end zone where LSU’s Trindon Holliday fell on the ball, preventing a Florida touchdown but giving the Gators a safety and two points that made it a two-possession game.
“That was the play of the game,” said offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. “Riley Cooper’s play to start us on the opening kickoff of ht second half really changed the entire tempo of the game.”
Sophomore Louis Murphy made the first two catches of his career and one of those went 35 yards for the game-clinching touchdown in the third quarter.
Defensively, the Gators once again bent a lot but they never broke. They did, however, deliver back-breaking plays that kept LSU out of the end zone all except one possession. The Tigers scored on their first possession of the game, converting Kestahn Moore’s fumble that stopped a promising Florida drive into a 73-yard scoring drive that finished when Russell flipped a little pass in the right flat to fullback Jacob Hester for a two-yard touchdown with 6:45 remaining in the first quarter.
Florida got the tying touchdown when Alford recovered the muffed punt by Chevis Jackson. The muffed punt and Alford recovery was just the beginning of this adventure. After an incomplete pass by Leak, Tebow made his first appearance in the game and this possession took on the dimensions of a real saga. Tebow entered the game on second down, faked a bubble screen to his right and then bulled his way through a hole in the left side of the line. LSU made contact at the 10, but Florida linemen gave Tebow a push and he somehow spun out of the pack all the way down to the four.
At this point, the drama was just getting started. After a false start that pushed the ball back five yards to the nine, the Gators lost two on an end-around sweet by Bubba Caldwell and then got three back when Leak tried a quarterback draw. On third and goal, Leak rolled right and hit a diving Jemalle Cornelius at the one, setting up the first critical fourth down decision of the season for Coach Urban Meyer. Meyer didn’t hesitate, sending in Tebow who powered in with 11 seconds remaining in the quarter. Chris Hetland’s extra point tied the game at 7-7.
LSU was on the verge of taking command of the game in the second quarter when the Tigers drove 75 yards to the Florida one but Russell fumbled the snap and somehow Siler came up with the ball. The Gators almost got caught in their own end zone twice before Wilbur launched a 52-yard punt to give the Florida defense some breathing room. On the first play after the punt, Nelson and Smith did their thing to get Florida on the road to the go-ahead touchdown.
The Gators drove 72 yards for the score, getting three big pass plays from Leak — 17 yards to Caldwell, 15 yards to Dallas Baker and 26 yards to Cornelius — on their way to a second down at the LSU one. Tebow was in the game at quarterback and everyone in the house expected him to try to blast into the end zone over the left side. He took the snap, took two steps toward the line of scrimmage and then jumped up to throw to tight end Tate Casey. Casey had trouble getting off the line of scrimmage, however, so Tebow double clutched before tossing up what looked like a floater in the lane. Casey caught the ball lying on his back for touchdown with 22 seconds left in the half.
“There is no traveling in football,” said Mullen. “He looked like he was worrying about getting called for an up and down on the basketball court. I’m sure Joakim Noah and all the boys were kind of cheering for that one.”
Cooper got the Gators started on the right track in the third quarter when his big hit on Doucet led to a safety 14 seconds into the second half. The Gators took the free kick and moved quickly. Leak hit Caldwell on successive passes of nine and 12 yards and Harvin ran for nine from his tailback position to set up another Tebow off tackle scenario at the LSU 35.
There was a bit of deception in the play as Murphy realized late that he was supposed to be in the game. He rushed onto the field and barely got set before the ball was snapped. Tebow took two steps toward the line of scrimmage and then pulled up. Murphy was all alone at the three where Tebow hit him between the numbers for the clinching touchdown with 12:05 remaining in the third quarter.
From there, the Florida defense took over. Russell completed a slew of passes, but Florida kept everything in front and didn’t allow LSU to beat them deep.
“We gave up some passing yards,” said Meyer. “Last year we lost to them because they completed three deep passes. You saw us play a lot more cover two and zone coverage this year because we had great respect for the speed and athleticism of their wideouts. We did give up some pass yards but we didn’t let them in the end zone and that was key.”
And the Tigers stayed out of the end zone because “The Eraser” was back there, doing his thing and making life miserable for the LSU wide receivers. There isn’t a better free safety in all of college football.