BATON ROUGE, La. — Tiger Stadium had quieted, as the 92,000-plus fans poured out onto the streets to celebrate LSU’s 23-21 win Saturday night over South Carolina — the Gamecocks’ first loss of the season.
But LSU coach Les Miles was still in the stadium, punctuating how difficult it was going to be for USC to leave Baton Rouge with its record still unblemished.
“Let me tell you: That was Death Valley,” he said, referring to Tiger Stadium’s nickname. “That was the place where opponents’ dreams come to die. It was spectacular.”
The dream is not totally extinguished for USC, of course. If the Gamecocks win out in conference play — and their biggest remaining test is this Saturday at third-ranked Florida — they will represent the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division in the league’s championship game, as they did in 2010.
USC-Florida will kick off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and air on CBS. Florida rose from No. 4 after winning at Vanderbilt. It will be USC’s third straight top 10 vs. top 10 game, something that happened just four times in USC’s history before this stretch. The Gamecocks are now 1-5 in such games, and coach Steve Spurrier believes his players must handle the stage better than they did at LSU if they are to survive the trip to Gainesville.
“Some of our guys got smashed (Saturday) night,” Spurrier said. “They acted like they were afraid of LSU. Football is a game of emotion. It’s who’s got more fire in their tank. LSU had a lot more. It’ll be a monumental task for us to go down there (to Florida) and get in a close game with them.”
The Gamecocks climbed to No. 3 in the Associated Press poll before the LSU trip, their highest ranking since they were No. 2 in 1984, when they promptly lost at Navy. The LSU loss dropped USC to No. 9.
What happened Saturday was totally incomparable to the Navy loss, of course. And, really, how the Gamecocks played against the Tigers was incomparable to what they showed through the first six games.
USC entered the LSU game No. 13 nationally in third down conversion defense, with a 30.3-percent clip that was five percent better than last season. Opponents had converted just 27 of 89 third downs against USC. Nobody had converted more than Georgia’s seven.
The Tigers were 11 of 19 on third down. A big reason: Just three of their conversions were third-and-5 or longer. Of USC’s eight third-down stops, five came on third-and-5 or longer. A large part of third down, of course, is getting into manageable third down situations, and USC didn’t do that often enough at LSU.
The Gamecocks struggled against the run, too, which could be an issue at Florida because the Gators run the ball 70 percent of the time. In their 31-17 win Saturday at Vanderbilt, which improved them to 6-0 and 5-0 in the SEC, they ran 35 times for 326 yards (9.3 per carry).
Even with a patchwork offensive line that included a redshirt freshman and true freshman on the right side, LSU pounded USC with the run with 53 carries for 258 yards. USC hadn’t given up more than 120 yards in a game all season. LSU’s 4.9 yards per carry more than doubled USC’s per carry defense average coming in (2.4).
USC allowed 22 runs of 10-plus yards in its first six games. Of LSU’s 51 actual carries (not counting a sack and a kneel-down), 21 went for at least five yards, including seven for at least 10 yards.
“Our front seven didn’t come to play,” said defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. “We gave up too many yards and too many third-down conversions. We can’t win like that. Some guys came to play and some guys just didn’t play. I don’t know if it was because of injuries or they were scared or what, but we’ve just got to work on it. We’re going to address that in practice and we just can’t come out at Florida next week and lay down against them.”
Spurrier said tailback Marcus Lattimore has a bruised hip but is expected to be OK for Florida. He will likely miss two or three days of practice this week. Starting defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles sprained his shoulder at LSU, but returned. Spurrier said USC likely won’t know until later in the week if he can play against the Gators.