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BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU now has evidence it can win without Zach Mettenberger throwing for a single touchdown or even for 200 yards.
The Tigers climbed to No. 6 in the Top 25 Poll on Sunday, a day after a 17-6 triumph over Florida. The victory infused LSU with confidence it can contend for Southeastern Conference and national titles, even as its normally potent passing game had its least productive outing this season.
"An average scoring night, but a night that the defense won, offense won and special teams won," LSU coach Les Miles said of Saturday's win. "If that recipe continues to hold up, we'll be awfully good."
Florida (4-2, 3-1 SEC), meanwhile, came away frustrated with its pass-protection problems and its inability to prevent LSU (6-1, 3-1) from gaining 175 yards on the ground. But with only one conference loss, the Gators, now ranked 22nd, remained determined to stay in contention in the SEC Eastern Division and win a berth to the conference title game in Atlanta.
"We all want to get to Atlanta and we still have a chance to do that," Florida wide receiver Trey Burton said. "It is really frustrating, but we just have to improve."
LSU used to routinely grind out SEC victories in much the same way it beat a Florida, which came in ranked 17th and with the top-rated defense in the league. But until Saturday, the 2013 LSU squad seemed like a different breed of Tigers, one which aired it out to play-making receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry on the perimeter, and which was just as likely to get running backs the ball with short passes as with handoffs.
Given the 44-41 shootout LSU lost at Georgia two games earlier, and wide open 59-26 victory at Mississippi State the previous week, a defensive struggle in which a bruising running game decided the outcome did not seem to suit the new LSU.
"The only thing I can tell you is I believe that this (offensive) line and these fullbacks and this big tight end we got — those receivers and that quarterback — make up just a tough group to defend," Miles said. "We can throw it and we can run it. We'll pound you at the line of scrimmage. We'll pound you with tight ends and full backs, and we'll pound you with a big running back. ... Do I think we can win a game like this? You betcha."
LSU came in averaging 45.5 points. The Tigers couldn't even muster half of their previous scoring average against Florida. Mettenberger finished with 152 yards passing, the first time he did not pass for at least 229 yards and at least one TD.
But Jeremy Hill gained 121 yards on the ground, and LSU ran in a pair of 1-yard TDs, one by fullback J.C. Copeland and another by reserve QB Anthony Jennings. Hill also rushed four times for 45 yards during a fourth-quarter drive that set up a short field goal which gave LSU a two-possession lead.
"It was a hard-nosed, ground-it-out kind of game," Hill said. "Add to that the fact that the defense did a great job and they played up to their potential. We just knew that it was a matter of time, putting it all together."
Indeed, the resurgence of LSU's defense may be the most important development for the Tigers, who did not allow a touchdown for the first time all season, and who registered four sacks and eight tackles for losses.
"I just know we are getting better and better," Miles said.
By contrast, the game was a step back for promising Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy, who'd completed 72.2 percent of his passes for 530 yards and five touchdowns against only one interception in his first three appearances since taking over for injured Jeff Driskel. Under pressure at LSU, he passed for only 115 yards (15 of 27).
Florida coach Will Muschamp said his offense failed to adequately protect Murphy. He also criticized his defenders for failing to shed blocks quickly enough to slow LSU's running game. All they can do now, he said, is address those deficiencies in time to win the rest of their league games.
"We need to take care of the SEC East," Muschamp said. "It is wide open, and it is all in our hands."