McElwain's message to Gators: 'Go challenge yourself to be great' at LSU
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Six weeks later than expected and 600 miles from its original location, it’s finally happening: Florida and LSU are playing. Having been eliminated from the SEC West, the Tigers are playing for pride, and an outside shot at a New Year’s Six bowl. The Gators have much more to play for: The SEC East crown and a spot in the conference championship game opposite Alabama.
When coach Jim McElwain was asked about the division title, he acknowledged that it will be motivation for Saturday, but it shouldn’t be the only reason his squad is ready to go.
“Yeah. And yet, different things motivate different guys, right?” McElwain said. “The East title or whatever title is all a byproduct of what you’ve put into it. So, it isn’t about that. It’s about putting forth the energy, giving the effort of the satisfaction of achieving something based on what you’re willing to give up to do it.
“Does that make sense? And, so, too many people focus on this championship ring thing. The championship ring never happens if you don’t control who you are and what you’re all about. And that’s being successful in life. If your pure motivation is that, you got things really skewed backwards.”
McElwain said his team should be motivated enough by the opportunity to go on the road and get a win in someone else’s house, something they’ve only done once this season: at Vanderbilt.
“You’re getting a chance to go into somebody else’s neighborhood and go take something they want. Right? It has nothing to do about the rest of it,” he said. “The rest of it is because you were successful in those environments that allow you to maybe go get that championship. And that’s really what it’s all about.
“It’s looking inside yourself and say do you really want to go put yourself out there and give everything you have or do you wanna just say, ‘It’s OK. You know, we aren’t supposed to do these. We’ve got however many starters out,’ you know, all this stuff. Well if you’re willing to do that, if that’s your deal, stay home. You know? Go challenge yourself to be great. That’s really what it’s all about.”
There’s more to Saturday’s game than the yearly meeting between the Gators and Tigers or Florida’s chance to clinch the SEC East.
Back in October, it was obvious at the start of game week that Hurricane Matthew was going to affect central Florida. LSU was insistent on playing the game, whether in Baton Rouge, a neutral site or Gainesville. Florida maintained a wait-and-see approach hoping to play the game in Gainesville.
After discussions with both schools, the SEC decided to postpone the game on Thursday at 5 p.m. The late decision led to a narrative on social media that the Gators were afraid to play the Tigers and were using Hurricane Matthew as an excuse.
At the time, Florida players shook it off because they knew it wasn’t up to them.
“To be honest it didn’t really bother me that much,” safety Nick Washington said. “It’s not like we had a vote, like, ‘Hey do you guys want to play LSU this week?’ It was kind of just something that was told to us. This game is canceled for this reason. There’s not really much you can do about it. Kind of just let it be. Yeah, the fans played a role into it, but at the end of the day we couldn’t do anything about it.”
With the game finally here, however, Washington says the team will have a chip on its shoulder after all that’s been said about why the game was postponed.
“I think the LSU game is one of the biggest games for us every season just like FSU, just like Georgia,” Washington said. “I mean we’re going to go into it with a little more of a chip on our shoulder because what’s been said in the media and what not. I know we’re ready to go.”
This week, the media will likely be talking about why Florida has struggled on the road. In three true road contests, the Gators are 1-2, and the win was a 13-6 squeaker over Vanderbilt that gave the team little to celebrate. Aside from the hot start at Tennessee (21-3 lead at the half), the losses have been the Gators at their worst, turnover prone and unable to slow down the opposing offense.
“Obviously we have not done too well on the road,” defensive tackle Joey Ivie said after Saturday’s home win over South Carolina. “There’s definitely got to be some changes. This is a huge game. This next game determines it all. This week of practice is going to determine everything. How we practice, how dedicated people are to watching film, like I said, this week is really going to determine how we play on Saturday.”
Practice and preparations on defense are certain to focus on Leonard Fournette. The elite Tigers ball-carrier would have missed the Gators on Oct. 8, but is good to go this Saturday. In two of his past three games, Fournette has rushed for six touchdowns.
Alabama held Fournette to 35 yards on 17 carries, but other SEC defenses haven’t had the same luck. He ran for 284 yards on 16 carries against Ole Miss and 98 yards on 17 carries against Arkansas last week.
McElwain says he’s not bothered by the Tigers being healthier than they were last month.
“To me, you want to go play somebody at their best,” he said. “I don’t ever look for a win to have an asterisk on it, does that make sense?”
With LSU coming off a 38-10 thumping of Arkansas, the Gators are certainly getting the Tigers at their best. One could argue Florida won’t be at its best, with starting linebacker Alex Anzalone and strong safety Marcus Maye definitely out, with linebacker Jarrad Davis and defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. also considered doubtful.
When it comes to his own team, McElwain doesn’t dwell on the injury report.
“We’ll take our guys in there, the ones who are able to get on the bus, and we’ll go play,” McElwain said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s the fun part. We’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve got to answer the bell and go play like the Gators.”
The Gators have their work cut out for them, and plenty to play for.