BATON ROUGE, La. — If Florida was going to win the SEC East for a second year in a row, it had to happen the way it did Saturday.
Not with the offensive explosions of the past, but with one defensive stand that will go down in Gators history.
"Things aren't always pretty," coach Jim McElwain said. "This time of year's pretty in Atlanta. It's the second year we'll go see it."
That possibility seemed unlikely two months ago, when the Gators lost control of the division at Tennessee. It seemed unthinkable two weeks ago when they left Arkansas beaten and beaten up.
But it is undeniable now after a 16-10 victory, UF's first at Tiger Stadium since 2009. McElwain is the first coach ever to start his SEC career with back-to-back trips to the title game. His No. 21 Gators (8-2, 6-2 SEC) will meet No. 1 Alabama at the Georgia Dome again (after next week's trip to No. 17 Florida State).
Parts of Saturday's victory were predictably ugly. The Gators were outgained 423-270 and finished with only one touchdown.
But it was one for the record books. Freshman receiver Tyrie Cleveland shed cornerback Donte Jackson and took Austin Appleby's bomb for a 98-yard touchdown — UF's longest since Cris Collinsworth's 99-yarder to Derrick Gaffney in 1977 — for a 10-7 lead.
UF amassed 38 more yards on that score than it did in the previous 36 minutes combined. That, as usual, did not matter, because of a defense that continues to survive — and thrive — despite injuries. UF held LSU (6-4, 4-3) to only 10 points on five trips inside the 7.
"We knew they couldn't do nothing with us," said standout tackle Caleb Brantley, who had three tackles for a loss and forced a fumble.
Because LSU couldn't convert on two of its first four trips near the goal line, UF knew it could handle the Tigers when it mattered most, with a six-point lead in the closing seconds.
With a first down at the UF 7, LSU ran for 2 yards, then 4, setting up third and goal at the 1.
"It's straight savage mode," end CeCe Jefferson said.
And Jefferson was straight savage on the first attempt from the 1, stuffing a fullback dive that LSU pounded the Gators with earlier. The Gators knew what was coming next, at the 1 with three seconds left.
"Everybody in the stadium knew they were going to try to shove the ball in there," cornerback Quincy Wilson said. "We were all ready for that."
They were ready, because their entire season had been building toward that one play — hippo diamond stick.
They had one of the nation's best defensive lines creating pressure up the middle, with tackle Joey Ivie (Pasco High) bursting through his gap. Linebacker David Reese, a true freshman thrust into the lineup only because of star senior Jarrad Davis' ankle injury, did the same.
With one potential opening closed, running back Derrius Guice had to pause before bouncing left. His hesitation bought enough time for safety Marcell Harris to blow past the fullback. He and Hillsborough High product Jordan Sherit caught Guice's legs as Guice leaped toward the goal line.
Guice fumbled and came up inches short. That set up a celebration that seemed sweeter thanks to this rivalry's buildup — a pregame scuffle involving Tigers star Leonard Fournette and weeks of LSU chatter that the Gators used Hurricane Matthew as a way to try to duck the game.
"The way I look at it," McElwain said, "they got what they deserved."
So did his Gators — a performance that wasn't pretty but still ended up as a masterpiece.
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.