Gators credit offensive line with early success of rushing attack

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida's offensive line springs running back Nay'Quan Wright for a gain Saturday against Alabama at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Florida’s rushing attack, which entered the weekend leading the nation in yards with 763, only further legitimized itself in the eyes of the college football world in Saturday’s 31-29 loss to No. 1-ranked Alabama. 

The Gators accrued 258 rushing yards against the Crimson Tide, and all four of their touchdowns came on the ground.

Dameon Pierce led the way with two scores, while Malik Davis led all rushers, finishing the game with 96 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones got in on the action, too, supplying 80 yards on a game-high 19 carries. 

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It was a welcome sight for both Florida and its fanbase, considering the Gators finished the 2020 season ranked No. 93 out of 130 Division I teams when it came to rushing yards per game, though its backfield is aware it doesn’t deserve the entirety of the credit for the team’s ability to pound the rock through the first quarter of the 2021 campaign. 

The Gators wouldn’t have nearly as much success on the ground if it weren’t for the play of the offensive line through three games, and UF’s weapons made sure to give the credit where it’s due in the aftermath of defeat.

“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,” Jones said. “They definitely made me feel more comfortable as a team.”

It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means, but it’s worth noting the context once again; the offensive line entered the season set to play three starters lacking significant experience prior — center Kingsley Eguakun, left guard Ethan White and Richard Gouraige all had varying degrees of production under their pads, but all three were transitioning into larger roles this season, and there was no telling how they'd fare.

It wouldn’t have been a surprise to witness some growing pains.

But any miscues haven’t outweighed the strides of the new-look offensive line, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by their teammates on the offensive side of the football. 

“I definitely feel confident in (the offensive line). They played their tail off today. I told them there’s nothing to hang their heads about,” Jones said. “They did a hell of a job today. And they gave me the time that I needed back there to deliver when I needed to. I’m very proud of those guys.”

The Crimson Tide was credited with a lone sack on Jones despite possessing an unparalleled list of former blue-chip prospects among their ranks. Although Jones was also hurried four times on the day, those numbers fall short when compared to the production of the Florida defense, which recorded a pair of sacks on quarterback Bryce Young to go along with six quarterback hurries. 

However, that – protecting the quarterback – wasn’t the area of concern for the Gators coming to the season. Much of the uncertainty when it came to Florida’s offense was whether or not it could make strides in the offseason that would allow the Gators to be less one-dimensional when the season arrived. 

It’s still premature to draw definitive conclusions, yet early returns indicate much of the preseason anxiety was all for naught, and that the Gators’ rushing game in 2021 may eventually reach the potency of Florida’s passing attack in 2020. 

“The O-line played huge. Everything – we can’t do nothing without the O-line, so I mean they played pretty huge,” running back Nay’Quan Wright said. “They showed up big for us, and we took advantage, and we ran behind those big guys.”