Photo: Emory Jones; Credit: Alex Shepherd, AllGators.com
Last week, I wrote about the perfect game the Florida Gators needed to play to defeat the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday.
The Gators came up just short of the Tide, losing 31-29 after a tremendous comeback attempt fell just short.
Florida played great, but not quite perfect. Based on the recipe I laid out before the game, here is a breakdown of how close the Gators came and where they fell short.
This was a big win for the Gators. One of the things I discussed last week was how Florida's tight ends did not have a catch through the first two games, and said head coach Dan Mullen would likely find ways to get them involved.
Keon Zipperer and Kemore Gamble combined for nine catches for 83 yards, and both had catches of 20+ yards.
It was a typical Dan Mullen offense stat-line for the pass catchers, with a ton of guys involved and nobody shouldering too much of a load. Eight different guys caught passes and none had more than five receptions. Zipperer’s 52 yards led the team.
I said that losing Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts would hurt Florida in a game like this, and yet the Gators came four points closer to Alabama than they did last December.
A huge part of making up for the loss of those two superstars was the running game, which is now the second-ranked rushing offense in the nation.
The running backs were once again tremendous and Nay’Quan Wright stood out in particular. He was highly involved on the Gators' 99-yard touchdown drive, including a big 18-yard catch on 3rd and 10 from the one.
Wright’s seven carries for 58 yards were part of a huge effort on the ground from the Gators, which we will talk about later.
This one never really had a chance to get off the ground, so chalk it up as a draw.
Anthony Richardson was only available in emergency situations after his hamstring injury against USF, and it may have cost the Gators. It seemed like they needed one big play to give them an advantage, and Richardson may be the best playmaker they have.
On the other hand, Richardson’s absence may have given Emory Jones a little more confidence. Jones threw an early pick that was part of a bad first quarter for the Gator offense, and there were even some boo birds out early.
If Richardson was available to play, Jones may have felt the pressure of him breathing down his neck. Instead, Jones settled in following the pick and put up his best performance of the season. Mullen said his composure against a team like Alabama was impressive.
“I think [he is] getting comfortable now,” Mullen said. “Kind of surprisingly he was just relaxed and comfortable with everything happening out there on the field, way more than he was the last two weeks. Which, you know, hey, you’re playing Alabama’s defense and I’m kind of relaxed and comfortable.”
Richardson could have been the difference one way or the other on Saturday had he played. However, the hamstring injury keeping him out means we will never know.
If you want to find the main difference in Saturday’s game, it might be right here - the Gators lost the turnover battle.
There was only one turnover between both teams, but it was an Emory Jones interception that led to an Alabama touchdown - putting the Gators behind 21-3.
The Gators handed Alabama a chance, and as usual, the Crimson Tide took advantage.
Another way Florida handed Alabama chances was with penalties. Florida had three separate pass interference penalties on third down, leading to 17 points for the Tide.
Two of the three were highly debatable, but all were extremely costly. The Gators actually had fewer penalties than Alabama, but it seemed most of them came at very costly times.
The defense also continuously handed Alabama chances by struggling to get off the field on third down. The Tide were 7-13 on third-down conversions, and they added a touchdown on fourth down just to add insult to injury.
Third down has been a huge problem for Florida in big games under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, and it has come back to bite them quite often. Alabama converted three third downs - one aided by a bad Brenton Cox Jr. pass interference - and that fourth down on their lone touchdown drive of the second half.
The Gators' struggles on third down added to a long line of coulda, shoulda, woulda's in Saturday’s game.
I said before the game that controlling the pace was the most difficult of all the things the Gators had to do, and yet, they made it look easy.
Florida actually beat Alabama at the line of scrimmage on Saturday, something that cannot be said of any opponent very often.
The Gators outgained Alabama 245-91 on the ground on Saturday, and all four of their touchdowns were rushing scores.
Malik Davis was tremendous once again, posting 86 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Davis’s 26-yard scamper was the Gators' first touchdown of the day and got the crowd back into the game.
Jones also had a nice game on the ground, rushing for 77 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. We already discussed Nay’Quan Wright, and Dameon Pierce chipped in with two touchdowns on just seven attempts.
The Gators' offensive line only allowed one sack on the day, and it was on the last play of the game. There has been a significant improvement on the offensive line year-over-year in Gainesville, and there is no better way to show it than by dominating Alabama at the line of scrimmage.
After having the best passing attack in the country last season, the Gators own the second-best running game in the country through three games this year. It is a huge credit to Dan Mullen and his elite ability to adjust his offenses to the strengths of his personnel.
The defensive front was not much different. The Gators had two sacks and seven tackles for loss against the Alabama offensive line. They had Bryce Young under pressure all day, and the limited number of sacks is a huge credit to the young quarterback’s pocket presence.
If you had told me before the game the Gators would beat Alabama at the line of scrimmage, I would have called you crazy. I also would have assumed that Florida won the game.
It had to be encouraging to the team and fans to see they can go toe-to-toe with the athletes of Alabama upfront. It also had to be incredibly disappointing that they did not come out with a victory.
I have gone to a lot of Gator games over the last five years and I have never heard one quite like that.
It did not have a moment like Feleipe Franks' Hail Mary against Tennessee in 2017, Brad Stewart’s pick-six against LSU in 2018 or Freddie Swain’s touchdown against Auburn in 2019, but none of those games were quite like Saturday.
The energy from start to finish was something I had never seen before in The Swamp, and the crowd of 90,887 was the fifth-highest in school history.
I said The Swamp would not make the difference in the game, but it was much closer to being the difference than I thought it would be.
You want to find the four-point difference from Atlanta's game to Gainesville's? How about the false start the crowd caused in the fourth quarter that held Alabama to a field goal? It gave the Gators a chance to tie the game on their last drive, but they just did not get the push needed on the two-point conversion attempt after the Gators' final touchdown.
Of course, the Gators never would have had to go for two if they had not missed an extra point all the way back in the second quarter.
The Swamp was incredible, but there were too many missed opportunities to overcome for it to be the difference. However, there are no moral victories for the Gators. Mullen said after the game they are close, but they have to start winning this game in order to accomplish what he wants to at Florida.
“Where we're headed as a program I think, I talked about it when I got here: I want a team that can compete for championships on a consistent basis,” Mullen said. “And to do that you're going to have to go; to compete for championships you're going to have to go beat Alabama. As everybody said last year, 'What's the margin?' Last year it was six points, this year it was two.”
Mullen hopes his team’s chance to close that gap comes really quickly.
“I’ve talked about it moving forward, we want to play them more often,” Mullen said. “[To] be honest with you, I hope we play them really soon, like later this season.”