5 takeaways: Florida Gators vs. Alabama Crimson Tide

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports

For the second time in nine months, Florida went toe-to-toe Saturday with the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.  

But like last year’s matchup in Atlanta, No. 9 UF (2-1, 0-1 SEC) came up one-possession short in The Swamp against the defending national champions after rallying from a 21-3 first-quarter deficit. 

A missed point-after kick after the Gators’ first touchdown came back to bite them, as their offense failed to convert a late two-point try. Alabama (3-0, 1-0 SEC) escaped with a 31-29 victory before a crowd of 90,887, the first fifth-largest attendance in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium history. 

“When you play in big games, the margin for error is going to be so small," Florida coach Dan Mullen said. "Had the missed extra point. We had a missed assignment on the two-point play. When you go back and watch, you’re going to see little things.

"Our guys expected to win the game. We just dug ourselves an early hole that we had to dig ourselves out of. ... These guys didn't flinch. They just kept battling, kept battling, kept battling, put us in a position to we were right there with an opportunity to be within two points there at the end of the game."

How did the big plays look?:What were the big plays in the Swamp as the Florida Gators narrowly lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide

Here are five takeaways from the game:

Young starts hot, does enough

Making his first career road start, quarterback Bryce Young caught fire in the first quarter with 138 yards and three touchdowns on 12-of-16 passing. The Tide jumped out to a 21-3 lead, but were outscored 26-10 over the final three quarters. 

Florida’s defense and the sold-out stadium was able to rattle Young in the second quarter, as Alabama was shutout with just 3 total yards of offense and three consecutive three-and-outs. Young was also flagged for delay of game.

"Crazy atmosphere," Young said of The Swamp. "Those fans were really loud. We knew it was going to be a hostile environment coming in, and it lived up to it for sure.

"Fans were super loud and there was a lot we had to deal with. This is a really good team. We just played in a really tough environment."

But in the second half, Young orchestrated back-to-back, 13-play scoring drives and was able to take care of the ball. He finished with 233 yards on 22-of-35 passing and was sacked twice. 

"I think early on they kind of came out, hit some plays on us, a couple of mistakes, but we settled into the game," Mullen said of his defense. "I thought Todd [Grantham] and his staff had a great scheme today. They really did a good job putting the guys out there in position to make plays on the field.

"We have a very young secondary going against a bunch of talented guys. I thought those guys really stepped up and got up there and played well. A couple of penalties here and there, bang-bang plays. I liked the aggressiveness and I liked the confidence our guys played with.”

Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones (5) is tackled in the first half. Florida Gators played their first SEC game against Alabama at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Saturday afternoon, September 18, 2021, in Gainesville, FL.  [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]2021

Jones plays well after early pick

It was Emory Jones’ game Saturday with backup quarterback Anthony Richardson (hamstring) out. 

After starting with a scoring drive, Jones threw a third-down interception on Florida’s second series and the Tide capitalized on the short field to go up 14-3. He turned it over on downs the ensuing possession and then went three-out, hearing some boos from the home crowd. 

But Jones found his groove after that, leading the Gators on three touchdown drives over their four next possessions, including a 99-yarder. His five-yard touchdown late in the third cut the deficit to five points. 

"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," Mullen said of Jones. "I think you saw him being a much more comfortable guy out there. Even his interception, his interception was a great read. 

"He made the perfect read going to the guy as he’s getting hit and the ball sailed on him as he was releasing. ... I think everybody freaks out because some of his errors the first couple weeks were, like, bad. I can’t think of an error, like a bad one, that he made today over the course of the game.”

Jones accounted for 261 yards of total offense, including 181 through the air on 17-of-27 passing. He also rushed for 80 yards on a career-high 19 carries. 

“I definitely felt more comfortable," Jones said. "I got in a groove out there and we got the offense rolling. Our offensive line did a great job up front and our running backs made a lot of plays for us. They definitely made me feel more comfortable.

“In some ways I definitely improved, but I still made a couple mistakes out there that I wish I could get back. I missed a couple throws that I don’t usually miss. And those things I’m trying to eliminate every week, but I’m definitely getting better." 

Florida Gators running back Malik Davis (20) breaks a tackle on a run for a touchdown during the football game between the Florida Gators and The Alabama Crimson Tide, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. Sept. 18, 2021.

Gators win the rushing battle

Florida showed Saturday that its rushing attack is legit. 

The Gators eclipsed 100 yards in the first half and finished with 258 yards on the ground, winning the rushing battle in convincing fashion. Alabama was held to 91 yards rushing.

“Since we started in January with this team, we knew the run game was going to be a big part of our offensive scheme," Jones said. "We just try to keep working at that and I try to do my part."

Malik Davis had a team-high 96 yards on 10 carries, including his 26-yard touchdown run. Fellow senior tailback Dameon Pierce scored twice and ran the ball seven times for 24 yards. Nay’Quan Wright also received seven touches and had some huge runs, finishing with 58 yards and a long of 30. 

"Whether it's Bama, Tennessee, LSU, whoever it is, we're gonna continue to run the ball," Wright said. "It doesn’t matter who’s out there, we’re just gonna put the ball down and run. We did it the first two weeks and were really efficient, so we're just gonna keep it going.”

Brian Johnson Jr. led the Tide with 75 yards rushing on 14 carries. 

Penalties keep Bama drives alive

UF’s secondary was flagged four times Saturday for pass interference. 

The first penalty came against safety Trey Dean III on the Tide’s opening possession. On their second series, cornerback Kaiir Elam was flagged on a third-and-7 stop to move the chains. 

Florida fans and players were not happy about the call on Elam.

"You just gotta control what you can control," Dean said. "If they call it, we've got to go out there and play the next play."

Alabama’s scoring drives in the third and fourth quarters were also kept alive by third-down pass interference penalties on Brenton Cox Jr. (third-and-12) and Avery Helm (third-and-7), respectively. 

The Tide converted more than half of their third-down attempts (seven of 13). 

"We gave up some first downs on penalties, pass interference calls, they’re judgment calls that can go either way," Mullen said. "But we gave up too many first downs penalty-wise to allow them to keep some drives alive, especially early on a couple of errors weren’t good.

"Let’s give them credit. They have some pretty talented players too, offensively. We were seven of 13. We need to be a little better on third down but four of them, I think, were penalties. Just little things like that that we need to get cleaned up.”

Special teams mistakes prove costly

Florida kicker Chris Howard missed the PAT attempt following the first touchdown, which proved to be costly in the end. The Gators were forced to go for two after their last score, but Davis couldn’t convert on the ground. 

Mullen said the offense missed two alignments on the failed two-point try. 

"I'm not going to get into specifics of the play, but we had a guy line up wrong and then a guy go the wrong way," Mullens said. "There was a couple options within the play. I'm not going to get into the specifics of what the actual play call was or what our design on that play was."

Another special teams mishap came in the third quarter. Kickoff returner Ja’Markis Weston called for a fair catch, backed into the end zone and muffed the return. The ball rolled forward and out of bounds at the 1. 

That didn’t prevent Jones and the offense from scoring, but the 99-yard TD drive ate up the clock and the Gators could have used that time on their final possession. 

"When you play in championship-level game, the margin for error is going to get extremely small," Mullen said. "I hope our guys and coaches, everybody we have points that out and embraces that at practice this week.

"We have to come together as a team that way, that positive energy of eliminating every little error at practice within our preparation. We have it show out in our performance next week against Tennessee.”

Up next for the Gators

Who: Tennessee (2-1) vs. Florida (2-1, 0-1 SEC)

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium


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