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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Gators fall victim to Jayden Daniels’ Heisman moment

Florida surrender record 701 yards in loss

LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels runs the ball in the Gators' 52-35 loss to the LSU Tigers on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.
LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels runs the ball in the Gators' 52-35 loss to the LSU Tigers on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana State quarterback Jayden Daniels dropped back in the pocket. The fifth-year signal caller scanned the field, waited and waited. With nobody open, he turned to his legs.

The Arizona State transfer cruised through the Florida defense, his white jersey a blur through a scrambling crowd of Gators. 

He cruised past a final Florida defender to put the finishing touches on a 51-yard touchdown, the highlight of a historic performance that sent the Gators home with their third loss in as many games.

The Florida Gators (5-5, 3-4 SEC) fell to the No. 18 Louisiana State Tigers (7-3, 5-2 SEC) 52-35 Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. Daniels became the first player in Football Bowl Subdivision history with 350 passing yards and 200 rushing yards in one game.

Daniels finished with 372 passing yards, 234 rushing yards and five total touchdowns. The Tigers put up 701 total yards in the game, the most allowed by Florida in program history.

“The quarterback is exceptional, and I think his legs were ultimately the difference in the game,” UF head coach Billy Napier said postgame.

Florida’s offense did its best to keep pace with LSU’s unstoppable force. The Gators amassed over 488 yards of offense, including 99 rushing yards and three touchdowns from sophomore running back Trevor Etienne.

“Trevor is one of our best,” Napier said. “When given opportunities tonight, he was elite.”

It didn’t take long for the Tigers vaunted offense to get on the scoreboard. Quarterback Jayden Daniels delivered a strike to receiver Malik Nabers who ripped through the Florida defense for a 38-yard chunk.

A Daniels scramble and another completion to Nabers put LSU near the goal line, and running back Josh Williams punched it in for six points and the first lead of the night.

The Gators responded with a devastatingly efficient offensive possession of their own. Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz completed all six of his passes for 61 yards and marched Florida right down the field.

Mertz flipped the ball to freshman receiver Eugene Wilson III, and the young speedster found space outside for a nine-yard touchdown to tie the game.

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UF had no answers for Daniels and the Tigers, though. LSU raced down field once again, and running back John Emery exploded through the line of scrimmage and nearly scored before going down with an apparent knee injury.

Williams took the next handoff down to the one-yard line, and it seemed like the Tigers would walk into the end zone. Then the Gators found an extra gear. 

Florida plugged the middle of the field the next two plays. On fourth down, UF smothered Williams at the line of scrimmage to give the ball back to Mertz and the offense.

The Gators moved the ball out from the shadow of their own goal line and near midfield. Florida faced a third down and disaster struck. LSU edge rusher Bradyn Swinson hit Mertz and the ball came free, and the Tigers took over in plus territory. 

Florida’s defense, backs against the wall after the turnover, responded with authority. Redshirt junior nickelback Jaydon Hill sacked Daniels on third down, and sophomore lineman Chris McClellan got to the quarterback to force a turnover on downs.

UF failed to capitalize on the ensuing possession as the game’s tensions reached a boiling point. Florida redshirt sophomore lineman Damieon George Jr. committed a personal foul for a late hit that pushed the Gators back 15 yards and killed the drive before it started.

Daniels rediscovered his form from the opening drive after a Florida punt. The Arizona State transfer dropped a deep ball from the heavens into the waiting arms for Brian Thomas Jr. for 41-yard gain. Daniels took it himself on a scramble for 38 more.

The Gators stiffened in the red zone again and forced a 3rd-and-12 from the Florida 14-yard line. Freshman cornerback Ja’Keem Jackson tackled Thomas for a short gain to force a field goal attempt. The kick restored the LSU lead, 10-7.

Florida punted the ball away again, and it took one play for Daniels to blow the game open. The Heisman candidate quarterback took a zone read around the outside and 85 yards for the house call.

With the offense needing a spark to keep the game close, the Gators faced a 3rd-and-8. Mertz dumped it off to junior running back Montrell Johnson who juked out a defender to pick up the first down.

LSU safety Andre’ Sam was flagged for targeting on the play which moved the ball across midfield and ejected Sam for the rest of the game. An unnecessary roughness penalty on Tigers lineman Jacobian Guillory moved Florida into the red zone.

The Gators pounced on the Tigers’ mistakes, and sophomore running back Trevor Etienne punched in a seven-yard touchdown. Florida’s defense forced an LSU punt for the first time all game and gave the ball back to Mertz with 2:11 in the half.

UF’s offense couldn’t muster any momentum in the final two minutes and ran out the clock to end the first half.

Florida looked to get started aggressively in the second half, but the offense floundered with a quick three-and-out. Another scramble from Daniels pushed the Tigers near midfield again on the ensuing possession. 

Williams received a pass in the flat with nothing but green grass ahead of him. The graduate student tailback rumbled ahead for 45 yards to get LSU on the brink of the end zone. Kaleb Jackson took over in the backfield and scored from five yards to give the hosts’ a 24-14 lead.

Mertz delivered a 33-yard strike to senior receiver Ricky Pearsall to inject life into a stagnating Gators’ offense. Etienne roared through the line for 18 yards to get Florida on the brink of the red zone.

The Jennings, Louisiana, product one-upped himself with a 21-yard burst for his second touchdown of the day. 

Sophomore kicker Trey Smack, who’d sent all of his kickoffs to the end zone, lofted a kickoff up into the wind. The ball fell out of Jackson’s arms and into the diving hands of Florida’s special teams.

The Gators took the gift and retook the lead. Johnson bullied his way through the Tigers’ defense before Mertz snuck in for the touchdown.

The lead lasted all of 67 seconds. Daniels continued to make his case for the Heisman trophy with a 51-yard rushing touchdown to retake the lead. 

With the game entering shootout territory, Florida needed to respond. Facing a third down, Mertz took a shot down field to redshirt sophomore Kahleil Jackson who made a spectacular diving effort for the grab.

Only it wasn’t a catch. Replay review ruled the play an incompletion and the Gators punted the ball away. It didn’t take long for Daniels to take advantage of the change in possession. 

He delivered a perfect pass in stride to Thomas for a 52-yard bomb down the right sideline. Daniels found running back Noah Cain for a touchdown to give LSU a 10-point lead.

Florida continued to counterpunch offensively. The Gators leaned on their rushing attack on a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped off by Etienne’s third score of the night.

Despite a productive day from UF’s offense, Florida needed to find a way to stop Daniels and the unstoppable Tigers’ offense. Nabers picked up 44 yards on first down dashing any hope of a stop. Daniels delivered a perfect deep ball to Thomas on the next play for a 37-yard score.

Florida faced a fourth down near midfield, needing a touchdown to keep up with LSU’s offense. Mertz fired a strike to Wilson, but the freshman couldn’t secure the catch and the Tigers took over on downs. 

Daniels capped off his historic performance with a pop pass to Thomas for a seven-yard touchdown.

The Gators will stay on the road as they travel to face the No. 16 Missouri Tigers next Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Contact Topher Adams at tadams@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.


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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.


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