The 90,887 fans in attendance on Sept. 18 in The Swamp roared the lyrics to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” as if they were trying to will their team to victory.
The Gators failed to surge back to pull off the upset victory Saturday despite the push from the home crowd, but the team and fanbase alike showed heart and guts in the 31-29 loss.
It was put up or shut up time for starting quarterback Emory Jones. Florida head coach Dan Mullen said pregame that backup quarterback Anthony Richardson, although medically cleared to play, would only see the field in the event of an injury. The oft-maligned redshirt junior had the backfield to himself after two weeks of hearing how great Richardson looked. The outcome of the biggest game in The Swamp in years rested on his shoulders.
On defense, the Gators would battle their most formidable foe without starting linebacker Ventrell Miller, who led the team in tackles a season ago but was ruled out for the year after a torn biceps tendon demanded surgery.
Florida had a first half to forget. The offense sputtered after an opening-drive field goal, while Jones completed nine of 16 passes for 98 yards and an interception while adding 10 carries for 40 yards on the ground. The lone turnover was by far his worst throw of the game, as he sailed a pass over the head of sophomore Xzavier Henderson after getting drilled by an Alabama defender.
The Gators entered the locker room down 21-9. Missed tackles, third-down conversions and poor offensive play stunted any shot Florida had in the first 30 minutes. The home crowd showered Jones with boos late in the second quarter, and it looked like a blowout was inbound.
However, as Rocky Balboa once said, “It ain’t about how hard you’re hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Florida took that advice to heart, and Jones helped the Gators race down the field to open up the second half. Buoyed by a few big runs from running back Malik Davis, Florida found the end zone on a fourth down run by Dameon Pierce, and the stands started to buzz again.
The Gators showed their resilience the following drive. After allowing a touchdown and a bone-headed special teams error, Florida started at its own 1-yard line. It refused to roll over, though. Led by 61 rushing yards from running back Nay’Quan Wright, the Gators traveled the length of the field and scored on a 5-yard Jones touchdown run up the gut.
The crowd turned all the way up to 10. The roars were deafening as the Tide marched down the field, helped along by some yellow markers. It was then that Ben Hill Griffin Stadium made its biggest play of the day: Alabama lined up to go for it on fourth and goal at the 1-yard line, but the sheer volume of The Swamp forced a false start on the Tide’s offensive line, and they were forced to kick a field goal that kept Florida’s deficit to one possession.
Jones took over as the rain started to fall, refusing to go away. Down by eight with 9:25 remaining, he led the Gators down the field, converting multiple third downs and a fourth down and en route to a second Pierce touchdown. A misstep on the two-point conversation, however, put the ball back in the hands of the Tide.
The defense needed to come up with one more stop to give the ball back to the offense. It had a shot, forcing Young and Co. to a third and 2, but Alabama converted and ran the clock down to 10 seconds. Jones had time for one last drop back, but he took a sack, and the game came to an unceremonious end.
“We played hard, but we didn’t play hard enough to come out victorious,” Wright said after the game.
Jones finished the contest with 181 yards in the air, 80 yards on the ground, a rushing touchdown and an interception.
“When you play big games, the margin for error is so small,” Mullen said. “I like the attitude of this team, I like the effort this team has… I think we have an opportunity to be a pretty good football team.”
Alabama came into the contest with a plus-65 point differential through its first two weeks. The Tide were 15-point favorites in The Swamp. They may have lost, but Gators proved themselves as a legitimate contender in the SEC.
All in all, UF outplayed Alabama in three of the four quarters. It finished with more total yards than the Crimson Tide, won the penalty battle and only had one turnover. The Gators outscored Alabama 26-10 from the second quarter on.
Florida lost its last two games to Alabama by a combined eight points — the Gators fell to the Crimson Tide by six points in the 2020 SEC Championship. There are no moral victories, but Florida has now twice been a few plays away from knocking off the undisputed top team in the country.
“Watching the game last year, I think that gave our team a lot of confidence,” Jones said. “And it just let us know that we can play with anybody, and that we just go to war and fight against anybody until the last second.”
Florida suits up for its next battle at home against rival Tennessee Sept. 25 at 7 p.m.
Contact Michael Hull at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Hull33.
Michael Hull is a fourth-year journalism sports & media major and a sports writer at The Alligator. He hosts the weekly sports podcast and has worked on staff for five semesters. In the past, Hull has served as the sports editor, the men's and women's golf beat writer, the volleyball beat writer and the football beat writer.