Gators notebook: Crimson Tide strikes first, often early

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Alabama running back Najee Harris carries against Florida during Saturday's SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. Harris rushed for 178 yards and scored five touchdowns to win MVP honors.

ATLANTA — After Florida won the toss but deferred to the second half, the Crimson Tide found the end zone on their first drive with the NCAA’s scoring leader leading the charge. 

Alabama senior running back Najee Harris found the end zone from eight yards out to give the top-ranked Crimson Tide the early advantage. It marked Harris’ 23rd touchdown of the 2020 season, too, and capped a nine-play, 70-yard drive. Harris contributed on more than half of the plays; he had four rushes for 30 yards and was targeted on one of Mac Jones’ five passing attempts, although it landed incomplete. 

Florida’s first attempt at stopping Alabama’s force in the backfield failed, and subsequent attempts wouldn’t get much better — not even close. Harris would finish the first half with four receptions for 53 yards and three receiving touchdowns to go along with 88 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown.

Florida's unavailable list

Florida’s list of unavailable players for the SEC Championship game match-up with Alabama included starting safety Shawn Davis and reserve linebacker Jeremiah Moon, two players UF coach Dan Mullen had hoped to get back for Saturday’s 52-46 loss to the Crimson Tide. 

UF star tight end Kyle Pitts did return to the starting lineup after missing Florida’s 37-34 loss to LSU, however, and he’d finish with seven receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown in possibly his last game with Florida. The Gators also listed Davis’ backup, freshman safety Rashad Torrence, as unavailable, in addition to 17 Kahleil Jackson, Ethan Pouncey, Lamar Goods, Jaelin Humphries and Lucas Alonso.

UF answers Harris’ first right back

The Gators were down early, but it didn’t take long for UF to answer. With Florida at midfield, UF sent five wide receivers out wide, and the Crimson Tide mistakenly lined up a freshman defensive back in single coverage on senior wide receiver Kadarius Toney. Trask waited and delivered a beautiful ball to Toney, who promptly separated from his man, Malachi Moore, on a go route, hauled in the pass and jogged untouched into the end zone. 

And just like that, the Gators were right back in the game after allowing an early score. The 51-yard reception marked Toney’s 10th receiving touchdown this season, continuing Toney’s vastly improved play in what will almost assuredly be his final collegiate season. 

Toney would finish with 151 of Florida’s 213 yards in the first half. 

Florida defense’s big break goes awry

Gators defensive back Trey Dean went from making a monumental defensive play to lying on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium field in agony, and the Crimson Tide capitalized moments later. 

Dean turned a Crimson Tide reception into a UF interception deep in Florida territory, and the Gators defensive back began in the other direction, only to be hit with a crushing blow by Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III. Dean dropped the football to the turf, and the Crimson Tide pounced on it to maintain possession at the UF 31-yard line. 

Alabama didn’t let its repeat chance on the second drive go to waste either, as star wide receiver DeVonta Smith scored on the very next play to put the Crimson Tide up 14-7. 

After being shaken up on the play, Dean needed to be evaluated on UF’s sideline for an apparent concussion, although he’d return several minutes later. 

Smith also broke Alabama’s career receiving-yard record in the first quarter when he hit 3,488 receiving yards, passing former Crimson Tide pass-catcher Amari Cooper’s mark of 3,463 yards. 

‘Bama racks up 1st downs

The Crimson Tide had little trouble extending drives against UF’s defense in the first half. 

‘Bama took a 35-17 lead into the halftime break, thanks to 22 first downs to nine by the Gators. Alabama accrued 366 yards on offense in the first 30 minutes of action, 267 of which came on 20 completions by Crimson Tide signal-caller Mac Jones. 

Florida struggled to get off the field on third down too as ‘Bama converted seven-of-nine attempts to extend drives. And four costly penalties by the  Florida defense didn’t help either. 

Harris breaks records

With his one-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, Alabama senior running back Najee Harris became the Crimson Tide’s all-time leader in rushing yards with 3,592 yards and counting to break Derrick Henry’s record.

It wasn’t even the first record Harris had broken on the night either. 

Earlier in the contest, Harris broke a three-way tie for Alabama’s career rushing touchdowns record when he recorded his 43rd career touchdown on the ground. Harris would finish the night with five touchdowns.