GAINESVILLE — No. 11 Florida left Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night the same way it left Atlanta nine months ago: Thinking it was really close to mighty Alabama, but not quite there yet.
“When you play in big games,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said, “the margin for error is going to be so small.”
And UF consistently came up on the wrong end of it in Saturday’s 31-29 loss to the No. 1 Crimson Tide. When they review the details, the Gators (2-1, 0-1 SEC) will find plenty of little things that made the difference between their eighth consecutive loss in the series and what would have been the breakthrough moment Mullen’s program has been waiting for.
They can start with missed tackles. There were too many of them early in a rough start that was a throwback to the historically bad 2020 defense that gave up 52 points to ‘Bama (3-0, 1-0) last December in Atlanta.
Rashad Torrence missed on third and 9 that would have ended the drive. Tre’Vez Johnson whiffed on one a few plays later on Alabama’s first touchdown, a pass from Young to Jase McClellan. And Amari Burney’s failure to thwart a screen led to a third and short during another Tide touchdown drive.
The Gators can dive into their four defensive pass interference calls, too. Three of them came on third and long, including one by likely first-round pick Kaiir Elam and another where NFL prospect Brenton Cox pushed a receiver on third and 12.
“At that point, you’ve got to control what you can control…” said defensive back Trey Dean, who drew the first one. “If they call it, play the next play.”
The Gators did not. ‘Bama scored on all four of those drives, including the field goal that gave the Tide a 31-23 lead with 9:25 left.
Those penalties look worse because they were problems in Week 1 against Florida Atlantic; they just proved irrelevant against the overmatched Owls but were insurmountable against the biggest dynasty of the modern era.
The defensive errors overshadowed the growth UF has made since last year’s heartbreaker in Atlanta. While UF only lost by a score, the Gators never really felt close. They did Saturday.
Last year’s Gators were pushed around up front by more physical lines. This year’s averaged almost twice as many yards per rush (6 compared to 3.4) and had more sacks (2-1) and quarterback hurries (6-4).
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The UF defense that was exposed last year held ‘Bama to only 10 points in the final three quarters Saturday and forced three consecutive three-and-outs in one pivotal first-half stretch.
UF even overcame a head-scratching blunder in the second half. A kickoff hit Ja’Markis Weston in the hands in the end zone and bounced away. He waved it on as it bounced out of bounds, giving the Gators the ball at the 1. UF shrugged it off with a 99-yard touchdown drive.
But the Gators simply made too many little mistakes to beat the reigning national champions. The easiest to pinpoint is the extra point that kicker Chris Howard sent wide right in the second quarter. Make that and the final one, and UF goes to overtime.
“That wasn’t on him,” running back Nay’Quan Wright said. “We’ve just got to execute more.”
He’s right. Despite that mistake, UF still had a chance to tie after Dameon Pierce’s 17-yard touchdown run put the Gators within two with 3:10 left. But UF botched the two-point conversion, first by lining up incorrectly, then by having someone run the wrong direction.
Quarterback Emory Jones attributed it to a miscommunication. Whatever the issue was, it was the final, fatal mistake. ‘Bama snuffed out the run, UF never got the ball back, and Mullen’s Gators were left wondering how they came up short, again.
“There’s just so many things you could point to during the course of the game that could flip it one way or the other,” Mullen said. “We have to find a way to make those plays to always flip it in our direction.”
Dazzling quarterback Anthony Richardson (hamstring) was available but only in an emergency situation if Jones got hurt, Mullen said. Even then, Richardson would have only played as a drop-back passer. Richardson improved during the week but could have made his tightened hamstring worse if he played. Mullen sounded optimistic that he’ll be available next week against Tennessee. ... The announced crowd of 90,887 was one of the most energized crowds Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has seen in years. It was the largest attendance since the Florida State game in 2015 and the fifth-largest in stadium history.