Down a touchdown with a minute and a half remaining and 90 yards from the end zone, Florida’s chances of pulling off the comeback were slim.
Lewis Neal made those odds even worse.
The LSU junior defensive end pulled Florida quarterback Treon Harris to the turf on the first play of the drive, his third sack of LSU’s 35-28 win Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. The Tigers (6-0, 4-0 Southeastern) kept the Gators (6-1, 4-1) out of the end zone to secure the win, and Neal’s sack caused precious seconds to tick away.
“He had a great game,” said junior defensive end Tashawn Bower, who shared a sack with Neal. “The kid practices hard and plays hard and watches a bunch of film. That’s always gonna help. He has great discipline and knows what to do.”
Neal now has seven sacks, ranking second in the SEC behind Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett (8.5) and tying for eighth in the country.
Neal finished with 10 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss Saturday. When he wasn’t taking down the ball carrier, he disrupted the passing game with three quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
When it came to rushing a mobile quarterback like Harris, Neal did his homework.
“You know he’s gonna try to run,” he said. “So we can’t use that speed all the time. You’ve got to realize that, if you go way past him, he’s just gonna run and take off the other way.”
The Tigers have 17 sacks in six games, only two fewer than they had all of last season.
“If we get some other guys getting in the backfield, it could help him out some,” coach Les Miles said. “Neal is a leader on our team and a guy that, frankly, we expect that from him.”
Three Tigers returned from injury against Florida, but only two stayed healthy.
Senior tight end Dillon Gordon started his first game since injuring his Achilles against Auburn on Sept. 19, but he appeared to aggravate the injury after making an 8-yard catch in the first quarter. He was seen on crutches and in a walking boot after the game.
“It was sad to see Dillon Gordon go down,” Miles said. “He was a guy that fought to get back to this game.”
Bower and senior defensive back Jalen Mills did not start, but each played significant snaps. Mills was the Tigers’ primary nickelback down the stretch, and Bower had three tackles.
They both returned from ankle injuries; Bower suffered his Sept. 26 against Syracuse, and Mills’ occurred during preseason camp.
“I’m definitely there. If not 100, (then) 95 percent,” Bower said. “I felt good out there, didn’t really feel my ankle too much. It could be the adrenaline, but overall it felt pretty good.”
It’s only a matter of time before Leonard Fournette rewrites LSU’s record book.
Following his 180-yard outing against Florida on Saturday, Fournette jumped to sixth place in single-season rushing yards in program history. His 1,202 yards through six games are 485 yards away from the record that Charles Alexander set over 12 games in 1977.
Fournette is ninth in school history with 2,236 career rushing yards, only 2 behind Rondell Mealey (1996-99).
Les Miles, by the numbers
LSU hasn’t been this good against Florida in nearly four decades.
The Tigers have won five of their past six games against the Gators, their best run in the series since going 5-1 from 1977-82. Miles improved to 7-4 against Florida and brought the Tiger Stadium series record to 16-16. The Gators still lead the all-time series 31-28-3.
LSU is now 2-3 in top-10 games against Florida, with all five happening under Miles.
The Tigers rushed for 221 yards and held the Gators to 55 yards on the ground, increasing Miles’ LSU record to 61-0 when his team rushes for more than 100 yards and holds the opponent below 100.
Tack on a bonus to Miles’ salary.
The coach will receive a bonus of at least $100,000 after his team qualified for a bowl game with its sixth win. Dating to 2000, the Tigers have scored a bowl bid for a school record 16 straight years.
In the polls
LSU was No. 5 in both the coaches and Associated Press poll released Sunday, garnering one first-place vote in each.
The Tigers moved up one spot in the AP rankings and stayed put with the coaches. Their next opponent, Western Kentucky, received five votes in the coaches poll and 11 votes in the AP.
LSU’s win against Florida, which aired on ESPN, drew the highest rating of any college football game broadcast in prime time this week. ... The win marked the third time LSU has started 4-0 in SEC play under Miles. The Tigers also achieved that feat in 2010 and 2011. ... Miles improved to 47-4 in night games in Tiger Stadium. His only losses came against Florida in 2009, Alabama in 2012 and 2014 and Mississippi State in 2014.
Advocate sportswriter Scott Rabalais contributed to this report.