LSU recalibrates target, takes on Florida aiming at 10-win goal

AIMING FOR 8:  LSU star receiver Malik Nabers will be a primary target for Jayden Daniels tonight when Florida visits Tiger Stadium. (Photo by GUS STARK, LSU Athletics)

By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – There’s no SEC Western Division trophy left to win for 19th-ranked LSU.

Or a chance to advance to the College Football Playoff, which was considered a long shot even before this season started.

But with three regular-season games plus a to-be-named bowl bid for the Tigers (6-3 overall, 4-2 SEC West), starting with Saturday night’s 6:30 p.m. SEC battle vs. Florida (5-4, 3-3 SEC East), LSU second-year head coach Brian Kelly has deftly re-shuffled his team’s goals.

“When people say there’s not a lot to play for, there’s a lot to play for,” Kelly said. “It’s a football team that’s in a position to win 10 games. That’s an envious position. Not a lot of teams that have that opportunity.

“It (winning 10 games for a second straight season) is another step in building the foundation of this football program towards consistency and performance.”

The Tigers’ poster boy this season has been junior quarterback Jayden Daniels, who was cleared Thursday to play against the Gators. Daniels spent the first part of this week in concussion protocol after getting knocked out of last Saturday’s 42-28 loss at Alabama when he was leveled by Crimson Tide linebacker Dallas Turner early in the fourth quarter.

LSU’s offense ranks in the top 10 nationally in seven categories: No. 1 in total offense (544.6), third down conversions (56.6) and pass efficiency (186.2), No. 2 in passing TDs (28) and first downs (238), No.3 in scoring (45.2) and passing (332.3), and No. 8 in rushing (212.2).

Daniels leads the nation in total offense (386.8) and pass efficiency (199.8), and he’s No.2 in rushing yards by a QB (684), passing TDs (27), and TDs accounted for (33), and No. 3 in passing yards per game (310.2).

That’s not good news for Florida’s defense, which ranks 44th in the FBS allowing 350.4 yards per game. The Gators have surrendered 121 points in their last three games (a win over South Carolina and consecutive losses to Georgia and Arkansas).

“Jayden has played as good as any player in the country this year and has had some really impressive performances,” second-year Florida head coach Billy Napier said. “He’s a trump card because of the athleticism.”

Napier, who has an 11-11 overall record and 6-8 in the SEC at Florida since leaving Louisana-Lafayette after the 2021 season to replace previously-fired Gators’ head coach Dan Mullen, has been under fire from Florida fans all season.

Last week’s 39-36 home overtime loss to Arkansas, which was previously winless in SEC play, was particularly galling.

Near the end of regulation play, Florida’s field goal team ran on the field while Gators’ quarterback Graham Mertz was attempting to spike the ball to stop the clock. The Gators were penalized for illegal substitution with 8 seconds. What would have been a game-winning 39-yard field goal attempt became a 44-yard attempt that Florida placekicker Trey Smack missed, sending the game into overtime.

The botched ending and subsequent loss turned up the heat on Napier’s job security.

“When you lose games, there’s going to be criticism,” Napier said. “I understand it. I’ve grown up in this profession. It comes with the territory. We knew this was going to be a challenge, and we’re right in the middle of it.”

Florida has a serviceable offense. Mertz is averaging 267.7 passing yards per game with a TD/interception ratio of 17 to 2, and running backs Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne are averaging a combined 128.2 rushing yards and 8 TDs.

It seems like it’s an offense LSU can likely stop or slow down, despite the Tigers’ repeated season-long defensive woes of giving up big plays and not getting off the field on third down. In LSU’s losses to Florida State, Ole Miss and Alabama, opponents combined to convert 66 percent of third-down conversions and averaged allowing 6 plays of 20 yards or more.

Kelly and defensive coordinator Matt House have been criticized for a lack of halftime adjustments, such as putting a spy on Alabama QB Jalen Milroe who ran for 155 yards and four TDs.

Kelly explained because of LSU’s secondary problems, the Tigers have been limited in their defensive schemes.

“We’ve had to settle on a defensive structure that allowed our guys to play fundamentally fast and sound,” Kelly said, “and maybe give up a little bit of that flexibility.”

Go figure

27: Straight games with a pass reception for LSU WR Malik Nabers

75: Plays of 20 yards or more by LSU’s offense including 65 by QB Jayden Daniels.

188: Consecutive pass attempts without an interception by Florida QB Graham Mertz, the second longest streak in school history.

445: Consecutive games that Florida has scored dating back to 1988, the longest streak in college football history and 53 games longer than any team in the history of the sport.

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