GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After Feleipe Franks’ final pass sailed over the middle of the field, was batted down by an LSU defender and fell to the ground, Martez Ivey and the rest of the Florida offense trudged back to the sideline.
LSU ran down the clock and stormed onto the field in celebration of a 17-16 win on Saturday. The Gators, meanwhile, retreated silently to their locker room.
“It hurt,” Ivey said after the game. “I’m hurt. Everybody’s hurt.”
It’s understandable why. The Gators came into that game undefeated in conference play, ranked No. 21 in the country and ready to make a statement.
Instead, they fell behind 17-3 early in the third quarter, scored two touchdowns and cut the deficit to 17-6, and then failed to score on their final three drives.
“It was a tough loss, man,” defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. “LSU? We never want to lose to them. But I mean, hey, we gotta keep our heads up.”
And that’s been the message for the past three days as the Gators (3-2, 3-1 SEC) — now unranked for the first time this season — start their uphill climb of getting back into the SEC East race. First up on that slate is Texas A&M on Saturday, Florida’s final conference home game of the season.
“We’re going to find out a lot about leadership as to where we go,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “We need to come back, have a good week, get ready to put this one to bed and then get ready to play our next opponent.”
On paper, Florida’s season is far from over. The Gators still can win the SEC East and return to Atlanta for a third straight year if it runs the table on its final four conference games, a slate that includes the Texas A&M game on Saturday, the annual matchup with No. 4 Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 28 and then back-to-back road games at Missouri and South Carolina.
But to do that, Florida will need to keep its focus on the present.
Thinking back to the LSU loss — no matter how much it stung — won’t remedy the situation.
“We’re gonna keep everybody together,” defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. “We gotta keep each other motivated to, you know, not have our heads down about this loss because we still have a whole season left to go.”
Wide receiver Freddie Swain added: “Just being a player. Being a man about what happened and taking the loss, and hopefully bouncing back next week and correcting our mistakes.”
The main problem to fix: Coming out strong on both sides of the ball.
The Gators won its first two SEC games — 26-20 over Tennessee and 28-27 against Kentucky — thanks to strong fourth-quarter performances. Florida gained 130 of its 302 yards off offense against LSU (43 percent) in the third quarter.
McElwain said the offense needs to find a way to be more up-tempo and stay consistent throughout all four quarters.
“You could see at times it was good,” he said. “And yet at times it wasn’t. There was questions instead of just flowing right into it. We’ve got to continue to work on that.”
On defense, Florida has allowed 27 total first-half points and 403 first-half yards last two weeks. In the second half, those numbers dropped to 14 points and 227 yards.
And Florida will potentially have to find a way to remedy these problems without a slew of regular playmakers.
The Gators were without five regular contributors during the open portion of practice on Tuesday: wide receivers Tyrie Cleveland (high-ankle sprain) and Kadarius Toney (shoulder/shin), offensive lineman Brett Heggie (concussion), linebacker Jeremiah Moon (ankle) and defensive back Nick Washington (shoulder).
Defensive back Chauncey Gardner (ankle) was at practice but did not participate in the Gators’ four-play “fastball” drill to open practice, leaving freshman Shawn Davis and sophomore Jeawon Taylor as Florida’s starting safeties for the drill.
But regardless of who is missing, who is starting and how the Gators adjust, they know they have to put their full attention to the Texas A&M Aggies.
“We’re gonna be ready for our next opponent,” Ivey said. “We’re gonna have an energy to us. We’re gonna have a swagger. … We’ve gotta keep going.”
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