Florida starting quarterback Emory Jones stood in the pocket, running back Malik Davis at his right side and the Alabama defense in his eyes. He’d just conducted an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, UF’s third in a row, and now needed a two-point conversion to tie the top-ranked Crimson Tide at home. Two yards stood between Jones and immortal glory.
The redshirt junior looked to the sideline and confirmed the play call one last time before rooting his feet to the turf and clapping his hands. He tucked the ball into Davis’ belly and hop-stepped with him for a moment before they both plunged ahead into the pile ahead.
The No. 11 Gators came within a yard of forcing overtime with No. 1 Alabama and their juggernaut head coach Nick Saban, but fell short 31-29.
The home crowd of 90,887 Florida fans made themselves heard early, forcing a delay of game on third and 4 in Alabama’s opening drive as quarterback Bryce Young clapped his hands several times but the ball was never snapped.
The flag was one of Bama’s few miscues on the first drive, however, or in the first quarter as a whole. The Tide still marched methodically down the field. In eight plays and just under four minutes, running back Jase McClellan found the end zone for the early lead.
After a Florida field goal, Young threw up a prayer under pressure as Alabama tight end Jahleel Billingsley found himself behind Florida’s secondary. 14-3, Alabama.
Jones then offered a nail in the Gators’ coffin with a back-breaking interception. Facing third and 10 and getting hit as he threw, his pass sailed over the head of sophomore receiver Xzavier Henderson and into the hands of Alabama’s Jalyn Armour-Davis, Jones’ fifth interception in nine quarters of play.
Six plays later, Crimson Tide running back Brian Robinson Jr. took a screen pass, broke a tackle and waltzed into the end zone, and Florida was down 21-3 before the first quarter concluded.
After a few traded punts to begin the second quarter, Davis found a huge gap in the Alabama defense and dragged three Tide defenders with him across the goal line to make it a two-score game. The Gators thought they’d drawn within 10, but Florida placekicker Chris Howard missed the extra point to make it 21-9 instead.
Remember that for later.
Florida received the ball to open the third quarter and took advantage, driving down the field on the strength of Davis and senior Dameon Pierce’s legs. On a fourth and 1 play from the Alabama 3, Pierce disappeared into a dogpile and his hands popped out the other side, breaking the plane and bringing the Gators within five points. For the first time since the opening quarter, the Crimson Tide led by only one possession.
Young and the opposing offense chewed up almost six minutes of clock to try and keep the door closed on a rally. Robinson stepped into the end zone untouched on fourth and 1, and Alabama led 28-16.
Then, disaster seemed to strike for the Gators. Return man Ja’Markis Weston attempted to fair-catch the kickoff, but the ball popped out of his hands. The ball rolled back out of the end zone and out of bounds at the one yard line.
Florida stood 99 yards from pay dirt.
Running back Nay’Quan Wright ran like a man possessed. Back-to-back-to-back runs of 30, 16 and 11 yards gave the Gators life as Wright danced, juked and cut his way through the Alabama defense. Jones tucked the ball from five yards out and found the end zone to end the drive.
11 plays. 99 yards. Five-point game.
Young and the Alabama offense could only manage a field goal, and Florida had the ball down only eight points.
Jones and his offense worked rhythmically down the field, grabbing first down after first down. The Gators seemed doomed facing third and 19 from around midfield, but Jones found slot receiver Trent Whittemore on back-to-back plays to move the chains.
Jones authored the best half of his career in the closing quarters, completing eight of his last 11 passes and running for 35 yards. The starting quarterback finished with 261 total yards, including 181 through the air, and a rushing touchdown.
“Over the first couple weeks, I thought he played good with some drastic errors,” Mullen said about his quarterback. “I can’t even think of an error he made today, like a bad one, at all during the course of the game.”
Then Pierce brought down the house.
The senior running back bounced outside, found a seam and ducked between two Tide defenders and found the orange end zone grass. No. 27 stomped his feet and punched the air as his teammates mobbed him. The touchdown should have brought Florida within a point, but the early miss meant the team needed two to force overtime.
The two-point conversion failed, however, the result of a blown play.
“We had a back line up on the wrong side and we really didn’t want to use a timeout at that time,” Jones said later about the play.
Ultimately, the clock ran out on Florida’s attempt to scale the SEC’s Mt. Everest. The Crimson Tide left with another one-possession victory over Florida, 31-29, as the Gators fell to 2-1.
The Gators take home field again next Saturday against Tennessee at 7 p.m.
Contact Ryan Haley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.
Ryan Haley, a UF journalism senior with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida, is Summer 2022's Engagement Managing Editor. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.