The last time Ben Hill Griffin Stadium welcomed Gator fans to each and every one of its seats was also a night game.
On Nov. 30, 2019, two days after Thanksgiving, 89,409 people who’d never heard of COVID-19 filed into The Swamp and watched Florida pummel Florida State 40-17.
It will have been a long 644 days since the football stadium at the heart of UF’s campus opens its gates again Saturday. However, once 7:30 p.m. rolls around, the No. 13 Gators will kick off against Florida Atlantic in front of a full home crowd for the first time in 21 months.
The home team, which will don its traditional orange helmets with white jerseys and pants to battle the Owls, will be almost entirely remodeled in the meantime. Redshirt junior Emory Jones, one of the prides of head coach Dan Mullen’s 2018 recruiting class, finally gets the chance to start a game and a season under center. The fourth-year signal caller saw backup action in 24 games across the previous three years and completed 64% of his career passes for 613 career yards, seven touchdowns and an interception.
After an aerial assault a year ago powered by now-NFL quarterback Kyle Trask, Florida fans should see the ground game much more often in 2021. Jones’ prowess with his legs shone in relief duty with 514 career rushing yards and six scores, and running backs and special teams coach Greg Knox highlighted his stable of runners including 2020 lead back Dameon Pierce, redshirt senior Malik Davis, redshirt sophomore Nay’Quan Wright, and five-star transfers Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman.
The first test for the new-look offense comes versus FAU. The Owls went 5-4 a year ago to finish second in the East division of Conference USA on the strength of their defense. Florida Atlantic allowed 17.44 points per game in 2020, 10th-best in the country, and only surrendered more than 25 points once in nine games (a 45-31 loss to Southern Mississippi).
FAU returns its top five tacklers from a year ago, including redshirt junior linebacker Chase Lasater and his team-leading 72 tackles. Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Jaylen Joyner found opposing quarterbacks for six sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss, both second-most on the roster.
Owls’ head coach Willie Taggart will pace the visiting sideline at The Swamp for the first time despite a 21-game stint from 2018-19 at in-state rival Florida State. Taggart coached the Seminoles to a combined 9-12 record across two years and FSU cut ties with him before that fateful November game two years ago.
While Mullen will brandish a new-look offense, Taggart returns 84% of FAU’s net yard production, including his four leading rushers and four of his five leading receivers in 2020. Junior Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam and the secondary will be tested by wideouts like graduate student TJ Chase, who paced the team a year ago with 23 receptions and 334 yards, and redshirt junior Brandon Robinson, who brought down a team-high three touchdowns.
Despite the return of so much in-program experience, the Owls’ backfield will be led and defined by a pair of new faces: Miami transfer quarterback N’Kosi Perry and South Florida transfer running back Johnny Ford.
Perry, a graduate student, served as Miami’s primary backup a season ago. A four-star recruit in the class of 2017, he completed 52.4% of his passes for 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his four years in Coral Gables, Florida. He also ran for 217 yards and a trio of touchdowns.
The Gators are a familiar foe for Perry. While he didn’t see the field, he stood on the sidelines during Miami’s 24-20 defeat at the hands of UF to open the 2019 season.
The new signal caller will be joined in the FAU backfield by Ford, listed as the top running back on the Owls’ depth chart. The former Bull legged out 1,175 rushing yards, 352 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns in three seasons. He led USF with 787 rushing yards as a freshman in 2018, but received just 74 carries the following two seasons combined.
The Gators look to continue their unbeaten streak against both Taggart and FAU under the lights on Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday.
Contact Ryan Haley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.
Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. 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.