Florida vs. Alabama score, takeaways: Gators outplay Tide, but miscues lead to close loss in The Swamp

By Adam Silverstein
September 18, 2021
Florida vs. Alabama score, takeaways: Gators outplay Tide, but miscues lead to close loss in The Swamp
Football

Image Credit: GatorsFB / Twitter

The rout was on. Leading 21-3 in the first quarter, the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide looked to make easy work of the No. 11 Florida Gators, a defensively-challenged and offensively-struggling team that could not find firm footing due to a drastic change in its roster following an incredible season. And then a funny thing happened over the final three quarters: Florida outplayed the defending national champions thanks to a bruising rushing attack and incredible environment inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

In the end, there are no moral victories as the Gators fell 31-29 to the Tide in The Swamp, but that does not mean there are no positives to take away from Saturday’s big game. From improved quarterback play to a standout offensive line performance to a defense that may have finally figured things out, Florida flashed its potential to return to the SEC Championship Game and face Alabama for the third time in a 12-month span.

Still, the end result of the closest Florida-Alabama since 1999 was UF’s eighth straight loss to Bama since 2009. However, for a team that lost those prior seven by an average of 21.6 points per game, a two-point defeat on the back of a missed extra point is nothing at which to sneeze.

So as the Gators recover and heal their bruised egos after their first loss of the young season, let’s take a look at what went down — and what must be taken away — from a classic SEC battle in The Swamp.

1. Florida won the final three quarters: Not just that, though. The Gators outplayed the Tide overall. Florida outscored Alabama 26-10 over the final 45 minutes. Even that does not tell the entire story. The Gators bullied the Tide on both sides of the ball. When’s the last time they’ve done that? Florida outgained Alabama 358-152 in those quarters (439-324 for the game). It ran up and down the field (258 yards) throughout the game while holding Bama to its sixth-lowest output on the ground in the last 11 years (91 yards).

After allowing touchdown drives on the first three possessions of the game, Florida’s defense held Alabama to 3 yards in the second quarter with three straight three-and-outs. It also forced Bama to use 26 plays combined for its two second-half scores, including a red zone stop that resulted in a field goal. After the Tide started 3 of 3 on third down in the first quarter, they went just 4 of 10 the rest of the way. The offense, meanwhile, scored three straight touchdowns in the second half, taking 10 plays for 75 yards, 11 plays for 99 yards (we’ll get back to that) and 11 plays for 75 yards.

Multiple things can be true simultaneously when it comes to the game of football. The Tide were the better team Saturday. They had the better players. That’s why their 18-point cushion through 15 minutes was enough to sustain them through the finish. At the same time, the Gators played outplayed the visitors. Florida’s Dan Mullen largely outcoached the legendary Nick Saban. That doesn’t change that Mullen fell to 0-11 against Saban all-time, but it does matter. This was a loss in the record books and in the standings, but it may well have been a win for UF’s psyche, which certainly could have used one.

“I like the attitude of this team. I like the effort this team has. I think it’s going to be exciting to see our response in practice this week, I really do,” Mullen said.

2. The Gators needed to play perfectly; they did not: When it comes to beating an Alabama, a couple mistakes may be acceptable. An entire slew of them creates far too bit a hole when the talent disparity is already so great. That’s what happened to Florida on Saturday as its miscues simply became too much to overcome.

Redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones, who threw for a career-high 181 yards on 17 of 27 passing, performed better than anyone could have expected going into the game. Still, better does not mean “great,” and two crushing mistakes — in addition to his propensity for wayward throws — drastically affected the Gators’ winning probability. Jones not only threw an interception late in the first quarter that gave the Tide a short field (and a 38-yard touchdown drive), he made a crucial mistake following the team’s final score with 3:10 to play.

With Florida searching for a two-point conversion, the offense lined up wrong. Even so, there was an opportunity for senior running back Malik Davis to sneak into the end zone on a zone read, but Jones held the ball too long, the gap closed, and Davis got stuffed. The Gators needed that two-pointer because redshirt senior kicker Chris Howard missed an extra point following Davis’ 26-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

Speaking of special teams errors, Florida was forced to drive 99 yards for that aforementioned touchdown because redshirt sophomore wide receiver Ja’Markis Weston, back as a kickoff returner, failed to call fair catch in the end zone only to watch the ball roll out at the 1-yard line in an incredible boneheaded play.

The defense was not without fault, either. Thrice in the game, Florida committed penalties on third down that continued Alabama drives. All resulted in scores. There were some questionable pass interference calls, but potential officiating errors cannot be blamed given how much happened in the game. Redshirt junior linebacker Brenton Cox Jr., responsible for one of those third-down pass interference penalties, committed the miscue on the same drive he dropped a sure-fire interception. (The Tide also dropped a wide-open touchdown in the game.)

“When you play in big games, the margin for error is going to be so small,” Mullen said. “You look at the turnover margin. We had one; they had none. We give up some first downs on penalties, pass interference calls, they’re judgment calls that can go either way. But we gave up too many first downs, penalty-wise, allowing them to keep too many drives alive. A couple penalties early on weren’t good. Missed extra point. We had a missed assignment on the two-point play.”

3. Jones deserves credit, just not the most on offense: It feels a bit unfair to first pile on Jones for his mistakes when he also played the best game of his career … against the No. 1 team in the nation. Now, that may not be saying much, but Jones’ 181 yards passing did not come easy thanks to a ferocious Alabama defense, and he made a number of significant plays on third down — particularly over the middle of the field — to keep drives alive. He also ran for 80 yards and a touchdown on the ground. So while the controversy all game was whether redshirt freshman QB Anthony Richardson should have played — more on that later — Jones may have turned the corner, at least to the degree that the quarterback controversy becomes more about how much time each player gets rather than who should start the entire time.

“Emory really stepped up his game this week. I thought had a pretty darn good game,” Mullen said. He later added that both he and Jones learned plenty about one another over the first two games, and Saturday’s offensive improvement showed that increased comfort both ways.

But while Jones deserves his slice of praise, he was not the catalyst for the Gators’ offensive success. That was the offensive line, which has played as well as any front that Florida has featured in years. Florida is not the nation’s top rushing team by accident, and while that may have been circumstantial considering FAU and South Florida were the first two opponents, piling up 258 yards and four touchdowns on the ground against Alabama is no fluke. The line, led by junior center Ethan White, opened one hole after another for the running backs. It also gave Jones as much time in the pocket as he could hope to see given the beasts that Bama fields. Offensive line coach John Hevesy has received a lot of grief for the line’s play and his recruiting of the position, but there’s no questioning the results through three games in 2021.

Let’s not ignore those carrying the rock, though. In addition to Jones’ 80 yards, Davis led the way with 96 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, frequently dragging defenders with him as he busted through the second level. Redshirt sophomore Nay’Quan Wright ran for 57 of his 58 yards on three plays during a single series (and caught an 18-yard pass, to boot). Senior Dameon Pierce’s 27 yards were harder to come by, but he earned every one of them, including the final 17 that resulted in the last touchdown of the game. He also had a 3-yard TD rush earlier. It was another banner day on the ground, and everyone involved deserves a lot of credit.

4. Praise for the defense … The play over the final three quarters was already mentioned in the first takeaway, but more needs to be said about a unit that held Alabama to its fewest points in a regular-season game since Nov. 10, 2018. The Gators compiled seven pass breakups, including three for junior cornerback Kaiir Elam and two for sophomore safety Tre’Vez Johnson, who was constantly around the ball. Cox filled out the stat sheet with his best game of the season, while sophomore defensive lineman Grevon Dexter showed out with eight tackles and a sack.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, like Hevesy, receives plenty of criticism. And he deserved it after the first quarter as he again mind-numbingly blitzed on every third down, opening up passing lanes that Tide QB Bryce Young found with ease. However, Grantham adjusted and actually began rushing just three defenders. Young was flummoxed at times when dropping back, resulting in three consecutive three-and-outs in the second quarter other major stops in the second half. That’s not to say Florida’s defense is suddenly fixed, but there’s a lot of positives that can be taken away from those final 45 minutes.

“I thought Todd and his staff had a great scheme today. Really did a great job putting the guys out there in position to make plays on the field,” Mullen said. “We had a very young secondary going up against some talented guys. Those guys really stepped up and played well. … I like the aggressiveness, and I like the confidence our guys played with.”

5. … and the fans: The Swamp rocked on Saturday. The announced attendance of 90,887 was the largest inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 2015 and the fifth-biggest in in the history of Florida Field. While Young being a relative neophyte also contributed, Gator Nation forced the Alabama into a number of mistakes simply because of their volume. There were false starts, delays of game, botched snaps and constant communication issues. As has been the case over the history of Florida football, the fans made a difference inside one of the toughest venues in the sport. That should not be lost on anyone.

“It was great to see The Swamp alive. Un-be-lievable atmosphere. The fans, they certainly did their part. Margin for error in this game is so small, and the Gator Nation certainly showed up and did their part,” Mullen said.

6. Where was Richardson? Though the Gators’ burgeoning superstar dressed for pre-game warmups and was in uniform on the sideline, a player many thought should have started for Florida on Saturday did not even step on the field. As previously known, Richardson was nursing a hamstring injury from the South Florida game. As not previously known, that was the recurrence of an injury originally suffered during spring practice. CBS Sports’ Jamie Erdahl announced before kickoff that Mullen was holding Richardson out unless Jones was injured and the Gators had no other choice but to play him.

That confused fans considering Richardson did his signature cartwheel back handspring on the field prior to entering the locker room. That’s certainly not the mark of an injured player, right? Later, it was explained that an MRI on Richardson’s hamstring revealed that it made a 50% improvement from last Saturday. After the game, Mullen clarified that Richardson was not 100%, and in the interest of ensuring he did not get injured worse, Mullen held his quarterback out.

“When you have a hamstring, it’s not kind of like a sprained ankle. There’s injuries that [are not going to get worse if you play on them]. His was, ‘He’s not going to be 100%, and even if he plays, he could definitely make it worse,” Mullen explained. “… He’s actually ahead of where we thought he would be, which is really positive for next week.”

Would Florida have won if Richardson played? That argument can be made. The counter is that Jones may not have gained the confidence he found if Mullen rotated them more frequently, particularly after Jones’ early interception. That’s just one of those unknowns that must be dealt with following a disappointing loss. What’s known for sure is that Jones has Richardson’s support personally.

“Congrats to my g [Emory Jones], you definitely shocked the world today,” Richardson tweeted after the game. “Continue to strive for greatness & keep playing ball my boy! Let’s keep it going and handle everything one day at a time.. LOVE!”

7. Odds and ends: Alabama improved to 28-14 all-time against Florida with a 9-2 record in The Swamp … the Gators have lost eight straight to the Tide dating back to 2009, including four SEC Championship Game meetings … UF has lost those games by an average of 19.1 points … this was the first meeting between these teams in The Swamp since 2011 and just the third this century … it was the first time Florida hosted the nation’s No. 1 team since 2002 … the Gators are now 3-13 all-time against No. 1 teams, winless in the regular season and 0-5 in Gainesville … Alabama is the only SEC team Mullen has yet to defeat in his head coaching career (0-11, 0-2 UF) … Mullen lost his first game when outrushing an opponent with the Gators (23-1) … Florida fell to 6-5 in games decided by 10 points or less … the Gators are now 6-9 against ranked opponents (2-3 vs. top five teams, 4-6 vs. top 10 teams) … Florida has scored 24+ points in 29 of its last 32 games … the Gators posted 400+ yards of total offense in their 13th straight game, the longest streak since at least 1981 … Florida leads the nation with 1,021 yards rushing, 340.3 per game … UF has scored in 413 consecutive games, an NCAA record

8. What it means: The Gators can compete with the best teams in the nation. It’s that simple. Does that mean Florida would win if it played this same game against the rest of the top 10? Certainly not. However, it does show that some expected deficiencies may not be as deficient as initially believed. There’s no question that UF’s overall team confidence grew throughout the game with Mullen saying as much in his post-game press conference. “I hope we play them more often,” Mullen said of Alabama. “To be honest with you, I hope we play them really soon, like later this season. I’d love that opportunity.”

That next came would come in an SEC Championship Game rematch. To accomplish that, the Gators will likely need to win out in SEC play. What’s unquestioned is that they definitely have the mindset to beat the Tide. Whether they can do it on the field now or in the near future remains to be seen.

“A lot of teams play Alabama, and I think they sometimes don’t think they’re going to win the game maybe. Our guys, they certainly expected to win the game. Played that way. We did last year; we did this year,” Mullen said. “… You come to Florida, our guys are excited. Where we’re headed as a program, I want a team that can compete for championships on a consistent basis. To compete for championships, you’re going to have to beat Alabama. … Last year, the margin was six points. This year it’s two. Hopefully, we get another shot at them.”

9. What’s next? Coming down from a game against Alabama, any team’s schedule is sure to get easier by comparison. That is certainly the case for Florida, which will host Tennessee next Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in The Swamp. The game will air live on ESPN. The Gators have won four straight games and 15 of the last 16 against the Volunteers dating back to 2005.

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