The throwback uniforms worn by the home team Saturday weren’t around when this football palace, this pit of a place for opponents, evolved into one of the greatest home-field advantages in all of college football. That’s OK, though, because the retro look fit the theme married to the mission of restoring the “Swamp” to its intimidating, mistake-inducing ways of Florida Gators seasons past.
UF coach Dan Mullen put it this way after his team’s ear-splitting, statement-making 24-13 victory over Auburn on Saturday at Spurrier/Florida Field.
“Just another day at the ‘Swamp,’ right?” was how Mullen opened his post-game presser. “You talk about the ‘Swamp’ as it used to be? This is what the ‘Swamp’ is, and what we expect it to be.”
Senior tailback Lamical Perine’s 88-yard touchdown run with just over nine minutes left sent 90,584 into delirium and was the play the No. 10 Gators, backed by a stellar defensive effort, needed to finish off the seventh-ranked Tigers in a game with both serious Southeastern Conference and national ramifications.
Fourth-year junior quarterback Kyle Trask passed for 234 and a pair of first-half touchdowns, but his three fumbles kept the visitors hanging around. Credit the UF defense for holding its ground by stifling one of the SEC’s most potent offenses and ground games and bedeviling true freshmen quarterback Bo Nix almost as much as the home crowd did in forcing three interceptions and one self-induced sack that helped seal the outcome.
“This was very big for us,” said standout junior cornerback CJ Henderson, who returned to action after missing the previous three games with a sprained ankle. “We came out there, kept competing and showed that we’re a big-time team. We found a way to win.”
In matching the program’s best six-game start since 2015, the Gators (6-0, 3-0) remained among the nation’s unbeatens and kept its half-game lead over Georgia in the SEC East Division standings. By beating a foe the likes of the Tigers (5-1, 2-1) the Gators showed they belong in the way-too-early College Football Playoff conversations.
At least until next Saturday when Florida goes to unbeaten and fourth-ranked LSU, but that’s a subject for later.
“This is the night to have fun,” senior wideout Freddie Swain said. “Sunday we can start focusing on next week.”
For sure, the Gators earned the right to savor this one. It had been seven years — October 2012 — since two undefeated and top 10-ranked teams played in the “Swamp.” The atmosphere was at a fevered pitch before the game, with Mullen jumping and waving his arms, exulting the fans to get hyped, before leading his team out of the south end zone tunnel.
Three hours later, he was sprinting to the student section to celebrate with his people, then circling the field and high-fiving every fan that put a palm his way.
“An unbelievable adrenaline rush,” Mullen said.
First, though, he had to deal with some unbelievable angst, the most dramatic of which came in the final 19 minutes.
The Gators led 17-13 when a 41-yard punt pinned the Tigers at their 5 with just inside four minutes to play in the third period. Auburn, which came into the game averaging 454.4 yards of total offense (including 251 on the ground), to that point had just 124 total yards, three first downs and had punted seven times.
“We knew it was going to be hard,” junior safety Donovan Stiner said. “But the coaches had us all prepared and on the same page.”
The Tigers, though, hit a couple nice running plays, then set up a play-action pass of 46 yards to wideout Seth Williams, who was 15 yards behind a blown UF coverage and should have had a touchdown had Nix not made his target stretch out and stumble at the end of the completion at the UF 13. Three plays later (not including a Swamp-induced false-start penalty), Nix’s pass into the end zone on third-and-12 hit Stiner in the hands for the defense’s second interception and touchback on the next-to-last play of the third period.
Things were loud then … but would soon be louder.
Trask, who appeared to suffer a serious knee injury in the second period only to return late in that quarter, engineered a nice drive from the UF 20 to the Auburn 18. There, though, he was sacked by defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who forced and recovered a fumble. It was Trask’s third fumble and it induced a collective gasp from the crowd that moments earlier was alive and kicking.
“That Auburn defense is super tough, top to bottom,” Trask said. “Nothing was given to us in this game. It all had to be earned.”
On both sides of the ball.
After the turnover, Nix started at his 40 with a chance at the go-ahead score. He moved the Tigers to the UF 36 where he faced a third-and-8 and another deafening situation. Under pressure, the rookie tried to buy time by pivoting and moving backward as Florida defenders gave chase. Nix tried another pivot but lost his balance and fell to the ground for a 22-yard loss, setting up a fourth-and-30.
“It was a tough environment,’ said Nix, who completed only 11 of 27 pass for 145 yards, one touchdown, the three picks and was sacked twice. “It was really loud and we had trouble hearing the clap for the cadence. Sometimes we had slow communication. Stuff like that happens. Every team that walks into the ‘Swamp’ has communication issues, but we just didn’t do anything to make up for those.”
Arryn Siposs’s ensuing punt went 46 yards and pinned the Gators at their 13 with 9:19 to go.
At that point, Florida had rushed for 66 yards.
On the next snap, Perine took a handoff into the right side of the line, ran through the arms of linebacker K.J. Britt, broke up the sideline, made safety Daniel Thomas miss at the 35, and outran the Auburn defense to the fifth-longest rushing touchdown in UF history, as the “Swamp” thundered. The play upped the UF lead to double digits with 9:04 to go.
Worth noting: Perine, from Mobile, Ala., was bypassed during recruiting by his home-state Tigers. Too slow, he was told.
“It almost brought tears to my eyes,” said Perine, whose struggles to find running room this season have paralleled Florida’s inability to amount much facsimile of a ground game. “Big-time atmosphere, big-time crowd and I’m glad I was able to make that big-time play.”
At a big-time moment.
“That just comes as a result from our resiliency,” Trask said. “Never giving up, keep pounding on them, and eventually you’re going to break one.”
Trask, who had 64-yard touchdown pass to Freddie Swain on UF’s opening drive and a 13-yarder to Josh Hammond in the second period, had to be resilient, as well. The three fumbles tested the defense, but he also survived a scare on the hit in the second quarter that left him pounding the ground in frustration. And pain.
“I felt a pop in my knee,” he said.
While Trask was in the training room, backup quarterback Emory Jones led a drive to a field goal and 17-13 lead. Auburn had been able to capitalize on Trask’s first two fumbles with only a pair of field goals, but were somewhat gifted their opportunity for a second-quarter touchdown when Mullen called for a fake punt that didn’t work inside UF territory. On the next play, Nix hit Williams for a 32-yard touchdown to make it 14-13.
The Jones-led drive pushed the Florida margin to four and proved to the be the last points by either team before Perine’s fourth-quarter house call.
And, boy, did it bring down the house.
“They have a really, really quality football team,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “There is a reason they are ranked [10th] in the country. They’re big, they’re tall, they’re fast, they’re strong, they’re physical and they’re well-coached.”
Got that home-field thing working again, too. Kind of felt like the old days.
The kind Mullen wants it to be nowadays.
“We’re building,” Mullen said. “I know what the ‘Gator Standard’ is and I know what the expectations are here, trust me. My expectations are even higher than that. We want to play in these big games. We want to have top-10 matchups in the ‘Swamp.’ We want to play in these big games and win these big games.”
On the latter front, this was a good start.