GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Gators junior safety Matt Elam made it known early Saturday that he had come to play.
On the fourth play of the game, LSU running back Spencer Ware took a handoff and tried to bounce out to the left. Elam quickly converged and a dropped Ware as if he were an old lady crossing the street. The play fired up teammate Jon Bostic so much that he was called for a 15-yard taunting penalty as he stood over Ware.
The brief hiccup didn’t stop Elam from dishing out the hits all day in Florida’s 14-6 win over the No. 4-ranked Tigers on Saturday.
Elam saved his best play for the second half with the Gators nursing a 7-6 lead.
LSU faced a third-and-seven when quarterback Zach Mettenberger dropped back to pass. Mettenberger avoided the Gators’ rush just in time to launch a deep pass down field in the direction of receiver Odell Beckham.
Beckham ran under the ball and raced toward the end zone. That’s when Elam closed and knocked the ball out of Beckham’s hands right before he was tackled. Florida’s Pop Saunders recovered. The officials originally ruled Beckham down.
However, replays showed the ball was on its way out before Beckham hit the ground, prompting a review that gave the ball to the Gators. Florida scored on the ensuing possession to take control.
“That was probably the play of the game in my eyes,’’ Gators safety Josh Evans said. “That was a big turnaround. They made a big play and we made a big play right back.”
Elam finished with a team-high seven tackles, including one for loss. He played with a ferocious energy – and did it dressed in a lot of pink. Elam wore pink shoe laces, wristbands, an arm sleeve and towel in honor of his sister and breast cancer awareness.
Elam’s sister, Britnee Walker, recently suffered a bout with breast cancer and attended Saturday’s game.
“From the beginning of summer workouts, I told my team I was putting it on the line for you,’’ Elam said. “I felt like I had to. I felt like that was what it was going to take and I did. We got the win.”
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can use Elam’s tackle and forced fumble on Beckham’s 56-yard reception as a teaching tool. Despite being fooled on the play initially, Elam recovered and was able to chase down Beckham and cause a turnover.
“I think it’s a true example of finishing the play,’’ Quinn said. “And he not only finished, he got it out. What a momentum-changer for us. What an example of keep-fighting, finish the play. That is so important and shows the will and fight we have as a group.”
Elam’s all-out effort didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates.
“That guy even motivated me on certain plays,’’ Evans said. “He was just relentless out there today, coming down, not stopping his feet, running through guys. It was pretty much laying the wood on a lot of people.”
On the play that changed the game, Elam let his natural instincts take over.
“I felt like I had to make a difference and that was my chance to make a difference,’’ Elam said. “He broke out and I was chasing him and I felt like I had to make a play on the ball. It was all instincts; I can’t tell you I tried to [cause the fumble], it was all instincts.
“You’ve got to be a finisher in the SEC. That’s what we did. We played physical and finished. That was the plan.”
Not only was Elam’s hustle important, so was the information the Gators received from the coaches’ booth in the press box.
Muschamp quickly received word from his assistants upstairs to make sure LSU didn’t snap the ball for the next play since it appeared Elam knocked the ball loose before Beckham was down.
“The guys in the box felt like it was a fumble. They told me, ‘Will, hold on, tell the officials don’t let them snap it.’ Obviously LSU knew because they were running to the ball like a good football team does,’’ Muschamp said. “They were trying to get the ball snapped for the next play.’’
Instead, the play was reviewed and Elam’s big play proved to be a game-changer. The junior from Palm Beach is making a strong case to be named an All-American and Saturday improved his chances.
Elam took special pleasure in beating LSU in the same physical manner the Tigers thumped the Gators a season ago in Baton Rouge.
“It’s always great to pay somebody back,’’ Elam said. “They beat us asleep last year in their stadium.
“It’s a great win. Our goal is to get to Atlanta. We took another step.”