October 6, 2006

Game of the Week: No. 9 LSU at No. 5 Florida

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Head-to-Head Breakdown

Chris Leak probably would rather forget the last time he faced LSU.

The Florida quarterback's slow adjustment to new Gators coach Urban Meyer's scheme reached its low point that October afternoon. Leak was sacked four times and went 11-of-30 for just 107 yards in the Tigers' 21-17 victory.

"Was he put in a tough situation?" Meyer said. "Sure. A quarterback who has a lack of firepower and (is) not being protected is in a tough situation."

Leak hasn't been the same quarterback since. He's been far, far better.

In the 10 games that have followed that loss to LSU, Leak has completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,304 yards with 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Florida has gone 9-1 during that stretch and has won its first five games this season.

The typically slow-footed Leak even showed some mobility last week with a career-long 45-yard run that set up the Gators' first touchdown in a 28-13 victory over Alabama. He completed 70 percent of his passes for two touchdowns in that game.

"I think the game we played last week is an indication of how far Chris has come," Meyer said.

But the senior quarterback's career renaissance is about to face its biggest test.

The fifth-ranked Gators (5-0) put their undefeated record on the line Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS) against No. 9 LSU. These Tigers boast a defense every bit as good as the unit that harassed Leak a year ago.

LSU (4-1) leads the nation in total defense and is ranked third in pass defense. The Tigers have allowed only three touchdowns all season.

"They play with a lot of confidence," LSU coach Les Miles said of his defense. "They understand what they're supposed to do. There's a real pride in the unit. They go out there with the idea they're going to stop somebody and (force) a three-and-out. They're a physical group that has great speed to the ball.

"It appears to me just from watching on the sideline that they're a very physical defense. When you go up in there, they're going to hit you."

Leak knows the feeling.

He remembers how the Tigers came after him again and again last season. The senior quarterback wants to absorb the hits without making the mistakes that have haunted so many previous LSU opponents.

"We can't have early turnovers or miscues in this game," Leak said. "Obviously great teams like LSU will capitalize on them and put points on the board. We have to make sure we stay on schedule and make plays that need to be made."

Leak may have to make more plays than usual.

DeShawn Wynn, who leads the Gators with 354 rushing yards, has a sprained knee that could prevent him from playing this weekend. Wynn's injury should result in more carries for Kestahn Moore, who has gained 160 yards on 30 carries this year.

"Kestahn has been doing a great job of moving the ball," Leak said. "Obviously, Wynn is a big part of the running game. We just have to make sure our running game is ready. I think DeShawn will be ready to go."

Florida discovered last year that it takes a balanced offense to beat LSU.

The Gators' lack of a consistent running attack allowed the Tigers to go after Leak early and often. At that point in the 2005 season, the Gators' inability to settle on a starting tailback made their offense somewhat one-dimensional.

Florida's running game has come a long way since then.

So has its quarterback.

Week 6 Game of the Week: No. 9 LSU at No. 5 Florida
LSU running game vs. Florida run defense: LSU has plenty of talented runners and no featured back. The Tigers have had four different leading rushers Alley Broussard, Charles Scott, Justin Vincent and Jacob Hester in five games this year. All of them could struggle to find running room against Florida's fourth-ranked run defense, which is allowing just two yards per carry. The Gators should get a boost from the reinstatement of defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, who had missed Florida's last two games while serving a suspension. Edge: Florida.
LSU passing game vs. Florida pass defense: JaMarcus Russell always has been dangerous in the fourth quarter, but this year he's playing well throughout most games. The junior quarterback set a school record with 14 consecutive completions last week in a 48-17 triumph over Mississippi State. Russell ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency and has thrown 14 touchdown passes with only three interceptions. Russell will throw to a deep and talented receiving corps that includes Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Early Doucet. But the Tigers are facing a stingy defense that has collected eight interceptions while allowing only three touchdown passes. Jarvis Moss leads a pass rush that has collected 13 sacks in its last four games. Edge: Even.
Florida running game vs. LSU run defense: The Gators' running game has improved the last couple of weeks with the emergence of Wynn, but a sprained knee could prevent him from playing Saturday. Even with Wynn, the Gators might have struggled to find running room against LSU's outstanding front four. All-America candidate Glenn Dorsey has helped the Tigers allow just 2.3 yards per carry. Edge: LSU.
Florida passing game vs. LSU pass defense: This is the most intriguing matchup of the day because it pits one of the game's hottest quarterbacks against LSU's third-ranked pass defense. LaRon Landry, a fourth-year starting safety, leads arguably the top secondary in the nation. CB Jonathan Zenon already has returned two interceptions for touchdowns, while S Craig Steltz has picked off a pass in four consecutive games. The Tigers still haven't faced a quarterback quite as good as Leak. Nor have they faced receivers as good as Dallas Baker or Andre Caldwell. Then again, Florida hasn't battled a defense quite this strong. Edge: LSU.
LSU kicking game vs. Florida kicking game: Neither team's kicker has much experience so far this season. Florida's Chris Hetland has missed all three of his field-goal attempts, while LSU's Colt David is 2-for-2. LSU's Chris Jackson averages 43.4 yards per punt. Florida's Eric Wilbur is averaging 41.3 yards per attempt, but seven of his 15 punts have landed inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Edge: LSU.
LSU coaches vs. Florida coaches: Florida's Meyer owns a career record of 32-2 in home games. He hasn't lost a home game since his Utah team fell 47-35 to New Mexico in 2003. LSU's Miles has done an admirable job of maintaining the standards set by his predecessor current Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban. Miles also boasts an outstanding staff that features two of the game's top assistants in offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. But it's hard to argue with Meyer's impressive home record. Edge: Florida.
LSU will win if: The Tigers must stifle Florida's running game and that includes backup QB Tim Tebow as well as Wynn and Moore. LSU must put enough pressure on Leak to keep him off balance. After scoring three points in a loss to Auburn despite throwing for 269 yards, the Tigers must make the most of their drives Saturday.
Florida will win if: The Gators need to stick with the formula that has worked for them so far. Stay opportunistic enough on defense to force a couple of big turnovers, establish at least some semblance of a running game and knock teams out with the one-two punch of Leak and Tebow.
X-factor: Florida RB Kestahn Moore.
This sophomore has never carried the ball more than 13 times in a game, but that could change Saturday. Even if Wynn plays this weekend, he probably can't have as heavy a workload as usual. That could leave the Gators depending on Moore, who has averaged 5.3 yards per carry in part-time duty.
Notes: LSU has won in each of its last two trips to Gainesville. The Tigers won at Florida 36-7 in 2002 and 24-21 in 2004. LSU leads the SEC in scoring offense (38 points per game), while Florida tops the conference in total offense (438.4 yards per game). This marks the first time in the 53-game history of this series that both teams are ranked in the top 10. Leak has never thrown an interception against LSU. Florida has won 12 consecutive home games. LSU's first-team defense has allowed only 13 of the 37 points the Tigers have given up this season. LSU has won three of its last four road games against ranked opponents. The Tigers' 7-3 loss to Auburn this season ended their string of three consecutive road victories over ranked foes. Leak is tied for second in the nation with 14 touchdown passes. Texas Tech's Graham Harrell has thrown for 15 scores to lead all Division I-A players. Baker is tied with South Carolina's Sidney Rice for the NCAA lead in receiving yards over the past six games. Baker has caught 37 passes for 595 yards and seven touchdowns during that stretch.
Megargee's pick: LSU, 20-17
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: LSU 17-13
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: LSU 17-14
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: LSU 21-20
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