No. 11 Gators come up short in upset bid of top-ranked Alabama

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It was a matchup of SEC heavyweights, with Alabama legend Nick Saban roaming one sideline, Florida’s cunning Dan Mullen across the field, 14 NFL scouts on hand and a national TV audience tuned in to watch.

Saban’s SEC bullies almost delivered an early knockout, but the No. 11 Gators got off the mat to turn the long-awaited run-in with the top-ranked Crimson Tide into the toe-to-toe battle everyone wanted to see.

As an exuberant crowd of 90,887 cheered them on Saturday at asold-out Swamp, the Gators rallied from a 21-3 first-quarter deficit to twice pull within a score before finally succumbing 31-29.

“I like the attitude of this team,” Mullen said. “I like the effort this team has. Our guys expected to win the game today coming into it. I know they’re disappointed.”

The loss dropped Mullen to 0-11 against Saban and the Gators to 3-13 against top-ranked teams, including 0-5 at Florida Field — where SEC standard-bearer Alabama is now 12-2.

But UF, a 14.5-point underdog, nearly beat the odds and ended Alabama’s winning streak, now at 17 games.

Trailing 31-23 as time wound down, the Gators (2-1, 0-1 SEC) had the ball and a chance during a see-saw second half when neither team forced a punt.

A 17-yard touchdown by Dameon Pierce around the left end following Emory Jones’ completion on 3rd-and-6 cut the lead to 31-29 with 3:10 remaining. But Alabama stuffed Malik Davis a yard shy of a two-point conversion.

Mullen said the Gators missed an assignment on the play.

It was a missed extra point following a 26-yard touchdown run by Davis in the second quarter that would loom large, forcing UF to go for two.

“You play in a championship-level game and the margin for error is going to get extremely small,” Mullen said.

Following UF’s failed two-point try, the Crimson Tide (3-0, 1-0) grinded out most of the clock behind their running game, the biggest run a 2-yard effort on 3rd-and-1 by 6-foot-1, 225-pound redshirt senior Brian Robinson Jr. with 1:31 remaining. Out of timeouts, the Gators could not get the football back until four seconds remained at their own 24-yard line.

Jones was tackled for no gain to end the game, but acquitted himself well after shaky performances against FAU and USF during the redshirt junior’s first two college starts. Jones did throw an interception, the game’s only turnover, but he finished with 181 passing yards and rushed for 80, including a 5-yard touchdown.

“I thought Emory stepped up his game this week, had a pretty good darn game,” Mullen said.

Jones had to shoulder an extra load. Backup Anthony Richardson sat out to avoid further aggravating the right hamstring tightness he experienced during an 80-yard touchdown run against USF.

“If he plays he definitely can make it worse,” said Mullen, adding he hopes Richardson can play next Saturday at home against Tennessee.

The rematch of Alabama’s 52-46 SEC Championship game win in December lacked the offensive fireworks but was a scrappy and often sloppy conference opener featuring a combined 18 penalties — 11 by Saban’s typically well-oiled football machine. Officials flagged UF for four pass-interference penalties, including three on third downs of Alabama scoring drives.

Saturday’s meeting was shaping up to be a blowout after Robinson’s 7-yard touchdown catch pushed Alabama’s lead to 21-3. The play continued a common theme as the Crimson Tide attacked the flats with quick passes and the Gators could not make plays in space.

But the Gators’ defense adjusted and held the Crimson Tide without any points and just three yards the rest of the first half to inch back into the game.

“They kind of came out, hit some plays on us, a couple of mistakes, but once we settled into the game ... our guys expected to win the game,” Mullen said. “We just dug ourselves an early hole we had to dig ourselves out of.”

The Gators could not, but they also showed they can stand up to the best the SEC has to offer.

Two teams have played Alabama closer than 15 points since Crimson Tide won the 2019 season’s Citrus Bowl: the 2020 and 2021 Gators — losers by a total of eight points. The Crimson Tide have won 15 other games by an average of 31.7 points.

“I hope we play them really soon, like later this season,” Mullen said. “I want that opportunity.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Edgar Thompson at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on Twitter at @osgators.

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