Dan Mullen raised his arms, pumping up the crowd before his team burst out of the tunnel.
It was the loudest The Swamp had been all season… until 1:45 remained in the UF-LSU rivalry.
Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow rifled a pass intended for 6-foot-7 target Stephen Sullivan, but it was cut off by Brad Stewart. The Florida safety secured the ball and had a wealth green grass in front of him. He dove for the pylon with one man to beat and snuck the pigskin just inside.
Eruption in the stands.
“(I) want to thank the Gator Nation, the student body and the all fans for the unbelievable atmosphere,” Mullen said. “The Swamp is an intimidating place to come play. It gave us an incredible home-field advantage.”
The defensive touchdown turned a one-point lead into a margin of eight. Another intercepted Burrow heave later, it was over. UF knocked off the No. 5 team in the country 27-19, disrupting the opponent’s signal caller while feeding off of the improving play of its offense.
The 2008 National Championship team and Ring-of-Honor inductee Tim Tebow were greeted by frenzying fans, and LSU tried to shut up the crowd early.
A 38-yard strike from Burrow to Justin Jefferson on the game’s first play started an opening drive into the red zone. Burrow threw for a big third-and-6 conversion that led to running back Nick Brossette scampering for six, giving the Tigers the an early 7-0 lead.
“We got punched right in the face and didn’t flinch,” Mullen said. “That's a lot of credit to Nick Savage with what he's done for the team. How they believe in each other, how they fight.”
The Florida defense tightened up from there. LSU drove into UF territory once again, but a strip-sack forced by edge rusher Jachai Polite gave the Gators the ball and brought the crowd back to life.
Polite and the defensive line made Burrow uncomfortable all night. They caused five sacks, eight quarterback hurries and three turnovers, including the Ohio State transfer’s first picks of the year.
The Gators forced consecutive three-and-outs to give the offense an opportunity to tie up the game on its fourth possession.
It did just that behind Lamical Perine. The junior running back had 26 yards on Florida’s first touchdown march, capping it with one-yard score with 12:30 remaining in the second quarter. He led all UF rushers with 85 yards on 17 attempts and two end zone trips.
Feleipe Franks struggled early despite ushering the touchdown. It wasn’t until 3:10 was left in the first half that the redshirt sophomore looked a confident passer.
He was 2-7 for 14 yards to that point, but he got comfortable with a check down to Perine and a quick pass to Van Jefferson that went for a first down. Then, a 35-yard strike to Josh Hammond set up an easy throw to tight end Moral Stephens and put UF up 14-10.
Franks’ looked to be heating up in the second half when he delivered another bomb to Hammond, this time for 49 yards, and a personal foul against LSU moved UF all the way to the 13-yard line.
But the quarterback regretted his next decision. He forced the football over the middle for Stephens with a man in his face, throwing a costly red-zone pick rather than taking a sack.
The Crawfordville, Florida, product finished his back-and-forth outing 12-for-27 for 161 yards with a score and a pick through the air, while he trudged for 46 yards on the ground in six attempts.
The Florida offense posted three-consecutive three-and-outs after the interception, while the Tigers clawed back with a field goal for the third quarter’s only points.
However, the visitors’ workhorse, Brossette, stepped up in fourth quarter. He had back-to-back carries of 31 and 48 yards in LSU’s opening drive of the frame, then rammed in a one-yard touchdown to give his team a 19-14 advantage.
Franks found life on the next drive, showcasing his underrated athleticism.
He fit in a bullet to Jefferson on a deep out-route. Twenty-six yards. He recognized no man marking him on a critical third-and-long an rumbled downhill to move the chains. Eleven yards. Then, he caught a pass from former junior college pitcher Lucas Krull on a trick play. Fifteen yards. First-and-goal Florida.
Perine punched in the rock on the next play, hoisting Florida to a 20-19 lead. It missed the two-point attempt that followed but never gave up the lead.
“You ever try to hold a rope and it starts ripping out of your hands? It’s burning your hands,” Mullen said. “Eventually we stopped the slide and we started yanking and pulling it back in. And we were able to win the tug of war there at the end.”
Follow Mark Stine on Twitter @mstinejr or contact him at [email protected].