Florida left the Georgia Dome on Saturday beaten, but proud of its surprising journey to the SEC Championship game. Following the 29-15 loss against Alabama, the Gators defense likely also boarded team buses at the Georgia Dome with its share of welts, courtesy of Alabama running back Derrick Henry.
The Gators gave the Crimson Tide trouble early in Saturday’s game, but their stout defense ultimately was eroded by Henry and the inability of the Florida offense to sustain any sort of possession.
“Our defense carried a lot of burden and, yet, you know what — there’s no quit in them,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said.
Florida’s defense outplayed Alabama for the first five of its 15 possessions, limiting the Tide to 42 yards on 19 snaps and no offensive points. Henry, the Heisman Trophy candidate, had carried eight times for 26 yards and gave up the ball when Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis drilled him in the hole on the first play of the second quarter.
“He’s a big back, but I feel like a lot of people just don’t want to square up on him and face him up,” Davis said.
However, as the Florida offense stacked up three-and-outs, Gators defenders grew weary of Alabama’s powerful offensive line and Henry running behind it. After Alabama’s fifth possession, the Tide scored 27 points over the next six drives (not counting a two-play series to end the first half), mixing in big pass plays with Henry’s downhill express. Henry finished with 44 carries for 189 yards, a touchdown and game MVP honors.
“The fatigue definitely set in, but just the mindset that we have, definitely we knew we have to keep working, keep pushing,” Davis said. “We made mistakes, and you saw it.”
Representing the East was nonetheless a considerable achievement for the Gators, who before the season were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East and received four points in the preseason Associated Press poll. Multiple bowl projections place them in the Citrus Bowl opposite Michigan.
“We’re not the Florida Gators that you’ve seen the past two years anymore,” Davis said. “We’ve got a lot of athletes, we’ve got a lot of guys who want to work and actually want to win. We’re going to do whatever we have to do to win, this offseason and the next coming year. So just look out.”
— By Ken Sugiura, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution