In the eyes of the Florida football team, winning the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title on LSU’s home turf Saturday afternoon was poetic justice.
Finishing the job with a goal-line stand — stopping the Tigers cold on two running plays from the 1-yard line to preserve a six-point lead in the final seconds — made the accomplishment feel even better for the Gators.
After a lot of back and forth about when and where the game would be played, because of Hurricane Matthew, Florida and LSU engaged in a defensive battle that went to the team that was on defense last.
When fullback J.D. Moore and running back Derrius Guice failed to get into the end zone on a last-gasp drive by LSU, Florida held on for a 16-10 win in Tiger Stadium and began celebrating what seemed like two victories.
When asked about the rhetoric that had been going on between Baton Rouge and Gainesville since UF officials postponed its Oct. 8 home game because of the threat of Matthew, Gators coach Jim McElwain flashed a satisfying grin.
“It just shocks me that somebody would question the Gators,” McElwain said of LSU. “The way I look at it, they got what they deserved. … It should have been worse.”
McElwain said his team treated the rescheduled contest like it was a home game even though the SEC stepped in and changed the venue, with LSU and Florida both buying out home games, after the schools couldn’t come to an agreement.
That, as well as the original postponement, stirred up some bitter feelings and animosity on both sides that carried over to Saturday’s makeup date.
The vitriol started long before the opening kickoff when a skirmish broke out on the field during warmups. Players had to be restrained by members of each team’s staff, but not before some pushing, shoving and trash-talking.
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Quarterback Austin Appleby said he wasn’t on the field when the altercation took place, but it didn’t take long for word to get back to their locker room.
“We found out relatively quickly,” said Appleby, who connected with Tyrie Cleveland for a 98-yard touchdown on Florida’s first play of the second half after the Gators netted 60 yards on 28 snaps in the first two periods. “They continued to disrespect us. When they test your manhood, it’s disrespectful to you. They messed with the wrong guys.”
“Those guys were taking a lot of shots in interviews during the week,” defensive tackle Caleb Brantley said. “When the game comes, you have to strap the pads up. There’s no Twitter out on the field … it’s 'mano a mano' and you strap it up.”
Brantley said the Gators were upset the game wasn’t played earlier and the insinuation by some that his team was scared to play at the time because of injuries to key players.
“Us, as players, we wanted to play so bad,” he said. “All those (LSU) guys did was trash-talk.”
Brantley played a key role in the outcome.
With LSU leading 7-3 midway through the second quarter and apparently going in for another touchdown, he stripped the ball from Guice on first-and-goal from the UF 7-yard-line, and linebacker Kylan Johnson fell on it to end the threat.
That was just the start of a string of unproductive plays for LSU that started at or inside the UF 10-yard line.
After a 1-yard TD run by Guice on LSU's first possession, the Tigers snapped the ball 13 times at or inside the 10 and netted just 17 yards.
They had a lost fumble, a sack and an incompletion on a throw into the end zone by holder Josh Growden after he mishandled the snap on a 19-yard field-goal try early in the third period.
Then, Brantley was among the Florida defenders in the middle of the action at the end when LSU had one final opportunity to pull out a victory and prevent the Gators from winning the division title.
Nose tackle Cece Jefferson was credited with the stop on Moore, who earlier in the game converted three times on third-and-1, then the Gators swarmed Guice when he tried to power his way in on the game’s final play.
“On the fourth-down play, they came out in tight splits,” Jefferson said. “We knew what they were going to try to do. All we had to do on first contact was move our feet.”
“When the offensive linemen came out, they were in a four-point stance,” Brantley said. “We knew they were going to dive over the top, and the other guys cut the ball back to me. We just kept moving our feet, and then we saw the ref say he didn’t get it.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world. We felt disrespected … ‘Y’all didn’t want to come to our stadium, so we’ll just come and whip y’all in your stadium,’ straight up like that.”