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Gators Defense Stands Tall in Top-10 Showdown

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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After playing second fiddle all week, the Gators defense was second to none between the white lines.

“They came to see an offense, and the wrong one showed up.”

That quote came from longtime San Francisco 49ers center Randy Cross in the late stages of Super Bowl XIX, as the 49ers were finishing off a 38-16 rout of the Miami Dolphins. The 1984 Dolphins and their record-breaking young quarterback Dan Marino were all the talk coming into that game some 35 years ago (or so I was told, as I was just 29 days old on the day of the game). Marino had set the NFL single-season record for completions, yards and touchdown passes in just his second year in the league. Multiple Super Bowl titles were in his immediate future.

Instead, it was veteran Joe Montana and the 49ers offense that lit up the scoreboard in Stanford Stadium. Marino, of course, played 15 more seasons in the NFL and never got back to the Super Bowl, but that’s enough talk about Sunday football. Let’s get back to Saturday football.

Change offense to defense in Cross’ quote, and you have what happened on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. No. 7 Auburn was the sexy team – the one that could burst through the iron curtain held by the top six teams in the country and become a viable national title contender. No. 10 Florida was also 5-0, but hadn’t played a team anywhere close to the Top 25, and needed dramatic finishes to survive against Kentucky and Miami (FL), who are both 2-3 and have proven to be mediocre teams at best.

Auburn was the favorite, despite The Swamp having as hostile of an atmosphere as any stadium in the country for a big game. The Tigers defense, led by likely top-10 NFL Draft pick Derrick Brown at defensive tackle, was going to stifle backup quarterback Kyle Trask. Auburn’s prized young quarterback, Bo Nix, was going to continue playing like a senior in a freshman’s body after leading a comeback win over a top-15 Oregon team and blowouts of Texas A&M and Mississippi State.

Only, Florida had other ideas, and the wrong defense showed up.

It was ugly, and points were at a premium, but the Gators were the better team, holding an Auburn offense that scored 56 points last week at Mississippi State to just 13 points and 269 yards of offense. Florida’s offense managed only 24 points, but it was more than enough. Gators 24, Tigers 13.

Nix completed just 11 of 27 passes, threw three interceptions, and was sacked four times. Two of the interceptions came in Florida territory, and the blame for all three fell squarely on Nix. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had Nix confused all day with his blitz-heavy pressures and playmaking secondary, pumping on the brakes on Nix’s quest to become the fourth true freshman quarterback to play in a national championship game in the past three seasons.

Florida wasn’t particularly efficient on offense, but did manage to fall just two yards short of 400, an impressive mark against the defense it was facing. The Gators scored touchdowns on a 64-yard pass from Trask to Freddie Swain, and an 88-yard run by Lamical Perine to seal the 24-13 victory. Florida never trailed, with Swain’s touchdown coming on the second play of the first offensive series. It was a one-score game throughout, however, until Perine broke free on the first play after a promising Auburn drive into Florida territory ended with Nix taking a sack for a loss of 22 yards. It was the only scoring play of the second half.

The Gators were stellar on the money down, as Auburn converted just twice on 14 third-down attempts. Florida’s offense completed five passes of more than 15 yards, highlighted by the touchdown to Swain. The crowd at the Swamp did its part, as the Tigers were flagged for three false starts.

Trask left the game for two series in the second quarter with what he and head coach Dan Mullen said was a sprained MCL, but he returned just before halftime and delivered a gutty effort despite losing three fumbles. His final line was an impressive 19-of-31 for 234 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns. Brown was the terror that he was expected to be, recovering two Trask fumbles, one of which he forced by taking the ball right out of Trask’s hands. That one came with the Gators holding a 17-13 lead, but Florida’s defense once again stood tall, forcing the Nix sack. Auburn was down 24-13 the next time it touched the ball, and it was party time on homecoming weekend in Gainesville.

After playing second fiddle all week, the Gators defense was second to none between the white lines.

Florida now stands at 6-0 as it prepares for a grueling stretch that begins next week at No. 5 LSU, continues a week later at South Carolina, and finishes in Jacksonville after an idle week against No. 3 Georgia. Thanks to Saturday’s big win, even with a loss in Baton Rouge, Florida will still be in control of its SEC East title fate.

Auburn has a week off to lick its wounds before continuing a three-game road swing at Arkansas and LSU, leading into a November spent entirely at home. The hope was to get to the Georgia-Alabama season-ending stretch with a single SEC defeat, like in 2013 and 2017, but that will now require the Tigers’ first win at LSU since 1999 on Oct. 26.

This game didn’t have quite the stakes of Super Bowl XIX, but it played out nearly the same way. We tuned in to see a defense, but the wrong one showed up.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.