The football spun toward the end zone, and the freshman cornerback turned his head. He had struggled almost the entire game on Saturday night, exposed and picked on by Florida. And now, as a potential game-tying touchdown pass in the fourth quarter zipped toward him, Derek Stingley Jr. needed to make a play.
Stingley released from the intended receiver. He dove toward the football, intercepting a low pass from quarterback Kyle Trask. The sold-out crowd inside Tiger Stadium, quiet when the Gators scored on three straight possessions, erupted into deafening cheers.
With the game on the line, Stingley forced the only turnover in a 42-28 win over No. 7 Florida. Aided by Stingley’s interception and the ensuing touchdown, No. 5 LSU sealed a victory that will push it higher in national polls and further toward a championship run.
“He’s got it,” coach Ed Orgeron said.
Florida attacked Stingley, once the highest-rated recruit in the country, throughout the game. The Gators’ first offensive play was a pass with Stingley in coverage. (It fell incomplete.) Instead of throwing toward senior cornerback Kristian Fulton — or true freshman Jay Ward, who played briefly when athletic trainers examined Fulton in the first half — the Gators went after Stingley. Orgeron didn’t anticipate the approach. No other team had tried.
It was said to come down to the trenches, this top-10 showdown between undefeated teams chasing a championship.
“Florida likes to attack the boundary,” outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson said. “So happens he had to be in the boundary the majority of the time.”
The plan worked for most of the game. On Florida’s opening possession of the second half, with the score tied 21-21, the Gators threw at Stingley four times. Three passes resulted in gains of 20, 17 and 12 yards. Then, on LSU’s 2-yard line, Trask threw a touchdown to wide receiver Van Jefferson. Florida took its first lead of the game. Stingley was in coverage.
After the series, Stingley felt frustrated. Chaisson encouraged him to remain calm and patient. He reminded Stingley great players sometimes struggle. Focus on the rest of the game, Chaisson told him.
“We've got faith in him,” linebacker Patrick Queen said. “After that drive, he settled down.”
LSU’s defense, unable to create pressure or make stops on third down, struggled until it blitzed more in the second half. And after the touchdown against Stingley, LSU forced two straight punts.
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Trailing 35-28 in the fourth quarter, Florida used trick plays and speed options as it moved into LSU’s red zone. It needed a touchdown to tie the game. On third-and-1 from the 16-yard line, Trask rolled to his right. Under pressure, he released a pass toward the end zone.
Stingley made a split-second reaction. LSU had dropped two interceptions earlier in the game. The freshman stopped mid-stride and undercut the receiver, snatching the football out of the air. His body dropped to the grass. When he stood, Stingley gazed toward the crowd as his teammates surrounded him.
“He doesn't say anything,” defensive end Neil Farrell Jr. said. “Nothing affects him. It's kind of like he's a robot. Nothing fazes him.”
Paratroopers dropping out of the cool October sky. A full moon rising silently over a sold-out Tiger Stadium.
Four plays after Stingley’s interception, quarterback Joe Burrow threw a 54-yard touchdown to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. LSU took a 14-point lead, finding comfortable separation halfway through the fourth quarter. About five minutes later, the Tigers prevented a touchdown on fourth-and-goal. They had sealed the win.
Stingley struggled against the Gators. He showed flaws. But when LSU needed it most, Stingley’s interception gave the Tigers momentum. He has now intercepted passes in three consecutive games. None of them mattered as much as the one Saturday night.
On the field after the game, fans crowded Stingley for pictures. The soft-spoken freshman, the one who impressed teammates and coaches as soon as he enrolled, tried to fulfill every request. He smiled. His eyes darted between phones. Finally, LSU staff members pulled Stingley toward the locker room. He had arrived.