Florida Gators Comeback Falls Short Against No.1 Alabama 31-29 in SEC Opener

By  //  September 19, 2021

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GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA (Florida Gators) – With an 18-point deficit before the end of the first quarter, it should come as no surprise of what became of the 11th-ranked Gators’ hyped-up Southeastern Conference-opening clash Saturday against the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide at Spurrier/Florida Field.

Only the final three quarters didn’t follow the script of the first, with UF ultimately falling to Bama 31-29 because, well, the clock ran out on the home team.

UF scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives spanning the third and fourth quarters, the final coming on a 17-yard run by tailback Dameon Pierce with 3:10 to push the Gators within a two-point conversion — made necessary due to a failed point-after attempt in the first half — of tying the game.

The Tide, however, bowed up on the try by stuffing tailback Malik Jones at the 1. Bama took the ensuing kickoff and, by picking up one first down, was able to run out all but the final four seconds and survive a tremendous effort by UF on both sides of the ball, not to mention a bombastic showing from the sellout crowd of 90,887 that was the fifth-largest in stadium history.

“Gator Nation came out and did their part,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said of the electric environment that, at times, was head-splittingly loud. “The margin for error is so small in games like these.”

And Florida (2-1, 0-1) made a couple more errors than reigning national champion Alabama (3-0, 1-0), which won its 17th straight game dating back to the 2019 season.

Coach Dan Mullen and the Gators were so close to perhaps taking top-ranked Alabama into overtime Saturday but instead have lost two games to the Crimson Tide over the last nine months (including the 2020 SEC Championship Game) by a combined eight points.

No other Bama opponents have come within 17 points during the reigning national champion’s 17-game winning streak.

“We didn’t play our best game the first two games,” Jones of the home win over Florida Atlantic to open the season and last week’s road victory at South Florida, both of them lopsided in the end.

“We came out [Saturday] and didn’t play our best, but we have a lot of fight in this team. It didn’t turn out how we wanted, but we have a lot of confidence.

With backup quarterback and SEC rushing leader Anthony Richardson ruled out of the game with a hamstring injury, Jones got the entire game and passed for 181 yards, plus rushed for another 80 and a touchdown.

He engineered a unit that produced touchdown drives of 79, 75, 99, and 75 yards on the way to cranking out 26 first downs and 439 yards of total offense, including a whopping 258 on the ground, and thus playing to its role coming in as the No. 1 rushing team in the nation.

His counterpart, Bama’s sophomore Bryce Young, was both poised and productive in the first collegiate start. In dealing with the loudest UF home crowd in years, Young threw TDs of 7, 26, and 7 yards in the first quarter — completing a pair of 75-yard drives — to stake his team to a 21-3 lead.

After that, the Tide had to hold on for dear life.

“We started to reel on defense and got tired in the second quarter,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after winning his eighth straight game in the series (dating to the 2009 SEC Championship Game), but now having won the last meetings (including 52-46 in the 2020 SEC title game) by a total of just eight points. “And [Florida] had a really good plan.”

The Florida defense forced three straight punts and held Alabama to just three second-quarter yards to settle back into the game. It may not have looked that way at first. Bama led 7-0 less than four minutes in when Young, amid the early game din, moved his team 75 yards in eight plays. (UF image)

The Florida defense forced three straight punts and held Alabama to just three second-quarter yards to settle back into the game.
It may not have looked that way at first. Bama led 7-0 less than four minutes in when Young, amid the early game din, moved his team 75 yards in eight plays.

Along the way, he completed a 15-yard pass to Slade Bolten, got a defensive pass interference call against Trey Dean III on a deep post, converted a third-and-9 pass to Jameson Williams, and got a 23-yard run by Brian Robinson Jr. (14 carries, 76 yards, 1 TD) to set up a first-and-goal at the UF 4. Two plays later, Young hit tailback Jase McClellan on a swing pass for the game’s opening score.

Still in the first quarter.

It got better in the second.

“We just said to keep fighting,” Jones said. “We knew there would be ups and downs in the game.”

After a swap of possessions, UF finally got in the end zone. First, Jones hit the tight end, Keon Zipperer, on a nice misdirection crossing route for 30 yards to the Bama 45.

On fourth and 6 from the 41, Mullen kept his offense on the field and a deep ball down the middle of the field got UF a pass interference call against Josh Jobe covering Jacob Copeland.

On the next snap, Davis (10 carries, 96 yards) went into the line, broke a second-level tackle, and scored on a 26-yard run with 6:34 to play in the half. The PAT was no good.

The Gators got the second-half kickoff and got moving, courtesy of a pass interference call on first down. Jones hit Copeland for 10 yards, Davis rushed for 15 and Pierce scored on an inside handoff from three yards out on a fourth-and-1 to cap an impressive (and needed) 10-play, 75-yard march to make it a one-possession game at 21-16 and got the home crowd’s attention.

“We were clicking,” Jones said.

Bama’s first drive of the half was more methodical (13 plays, 75 yards, 5:47) but equally as productive. It included third-down conversions of 3, 12 (another by penalty), and 9, then ended with a 3-yard scoring run by Robinson, who went untouched off the left side on fourth-and-1 to put the Tide back up double digits at 28-16.

“You can only control what you can control,” senior cornerback Trey Dean III said of the ill-timed penalties against the secondary. “Play the next play.”

On the ensuing kickoff, Ja’Marcus Weston misplayed the ball and stuck his offense at the 1. It seemed like a brutal mistake at the time, but Jones and his offense stayed cool.

An 18-run by Nay’Quan Wright (7 carries, 58 yards) got the Gators out of the hole. His runs of 30, 16, and 11 that followed and set up Jones for a 5-yard touchdown up the middle drew UF back within 28-23 with 28 seconds to go in the third quarter.

“Coach called the plays, the o-line held up, the quarterback delivered the ball,” Wright said of the second-half offense that generated 239 yards and 16 first downs “We just moved the chains.”

Young, though, padded the Bama lead his next time out. Just a little, but enough.

Quarterback Emory Jones (5) had the Gators in leading the offense on four scoring drives the last three quarters.

Thirteen plays, 57 yards, with a fourth defensive pass interference (on third-and-8), plus a 15-yard run by Young inside the 19. Bama’s first down at the 2 became a fourth-and-goal at the UF 1.

At first, Saban and sent his field-goal unit out, only to call a timeout and reconsider. Back came Young, but one of his linemen flinched for a false start and Will Reichard’s 24-yard field goal made the score 31-23, leaving the Gators within a possession still.

Jones needed 11 plays to go 75 yards in 6:20, with a pair of big third downs along the way, with Pierce rambling off the left side for a 17-yard TD with 3:10 left and the Gators down 31-29. Davis, though, was stuffed at the 1 on the two-point attempt that looked bad from the start.

“We had a guy line up wrong and a guy goes the wrong way,” Mullen said. That left matters to the UF defense, with, again, next to no margin for error.

Bama picked up a first down while Florida burned its final timeouts. By the time the Tide was forced to punt only 10 seconds remained. The Gators got a fair catch at their 24 with four seconds left.

There would be no “Kick 6-like” kind of ending for the home team. There would also be no celebrating a so-called moral victory. There would, however, be optimism and reason to believe in this team.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” Wright said. His coach agreed and went one better.

“I hope we play them again this season,” Mullen said. “It was great SEC football.”

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