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Despite battered fronts, LSU-Florida will still be a physical showdown

BATON ROUGE, La. -- A few weeks ago, the highlight of the LSU-Florida matchup appeared to be Tigers All-AmericanLeonard Fournette running against a dynamite Gators front seven. As Saturday’s kickoff approaches, it becomes more and more evident that this heavily anticipated matchup will not materialize.

LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron said Wednesday that he does not expect Fournette to play against Florida (noon ET, ESPN), and he was already without two starting offensive linemen, right tackle Toby Weathersby and left guard Will Clapp.

Through the first five games, LSU (3-2, 2-1 SEC) has already dealt with a boatload of injuries, particularly up front, so the Tigers have gained plenty of experience adjusting on the fly.

“It’s happened like every week so far,” said left tackle K.J. Malone, who will be part of LSU’s fourth different starting five in six games. “Coach [Jeff] Grimes always tells all of us it’s the next man up, so we all feel comfortable with whoever’s in, no matter if you’re a freshman or a senior.”

Meanwhile, Florida’s injury-riddled defensive front limps into the LSU game, with nose tackle Joey Ivie (thumb) and defensive end Jordan Sherit (knee) already ruled out and defensive tackle Caleb Brantley (finger) and defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (undisclosed) both questionable.

Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone, who is also expected to play with a splint protecting his injured thumb, recognizes those injuries as a major concern for his defense.

“It’s big,” Anzalone told reporters earlier this week. “Jordan Sherit is a big-time player for us and losing him definitely hurts, but we have a lot of young guys that can help out and step up. That’s why you come to Florida is to play as a freshman. You don’t come here to redshirt or do whatever. I think I’m excited to see a lot of the young guys play and step up. It’s next man up. That’s our mentality going into this week.”

“Next man up” is a philosophy that players from both teams have no choice but to adopt.

The Gators (4-1, 2-1) will be just fine with sophomore Cece Jefferson in a starting role, and other youngsters -- particularly redshirt freshman end Jabari Zuniga, who already has five sacks -- are talented enough to become stars eventually. But there is no replacing experience, which is why the now-injured fourth- and fifth-year players who dotted the starting lineup made Florida’s defensive front so formidable.

“The biggest thing is experience,” Anzalone said. “Just playing in such a big game, the more you play, the more confidence you gain and the better you play eventually. And as the game goes on a lot of the younger guys will do a lot better. I think that’s something we’ve seen in the last couple games.”

While that may be true, opponents have certainly moved the ball more effectively against Florida in recent weeks.

Through the first three weeks of the season, Florida boasted the nation’s No. 1 defense in yards per play (2.59) and yards per rushing attempt (1.31). In the last two games, when Tennessee ran for 179 yards and Vanderbilt ran for 147, the injured Gators have taken a step backward. In those two weeks, Florida surrendered 5.16 yards per play (39th nationally) and 3.93 yards per carry (51st).

Whether LSU’s battered offensive front can continue that trend is another story. The Tigers can at least carry some confidence into Saturday’s game after dominating Missouri up front last Saturday despite the numerous injuries.

Indeed, LSU has dealt with so many lineup changes that players sometimes don’t even realize a new teammate entered the game.

“I’m so focused on the defense and the play calling, I won’t realize we had a change in the offensive line unless it’s the center sometimes until I watch the film,” quarterback Danny Etling said.

Added right guard Josh Boutte, “Sometimes in a game, you look to your left and it’s like, ‘Oh when did you get in?’”

LSU’s running game accounted for 418 of its 634 yards, with Derrius Guice (163 rushing yards against Mizzou) and Darrel Williams (130 yards) scoring three touchdowns apiece. Guice is averaging 8.7 yards per carry this season, so he’s a better-than-average fallback option should Fournette be unable to go on Saturday.

Guice’s presence allows LSU to maintain its traditional run-first philosophy despite the injuries to Fournette and multiple linemen. Since that will remain the case, it’s entirely likely that the anticipated line-of-scrimmage battle will still go down between LSU and Florida. It’s just that some understudies might have to play unexpected leading roles.

“It’s going to be every play, play after play, we’re going to be going after each other,” Boutte predicted. “So it’s just about, until one person gives up, it’s going to be man-versus-man the whole night.”