Florida football: Title-caliber D suffocates Auburn, earns respect
As Florida’s Marco Wilson celebrated a game-sealing interception, Auburn’s Bo Nix trudged off the field, hands on his hips and head down. As an exasperated Gus Malzahn asked his Nix what went wrong, Nix’s hands went quickly up in the air — a young quarterback without an answer.
In truth, on this sun-drenched Swamp Saturday, the Auburn offense, led by the much-ballyhooed freshman Nix, he with the royal Tigers bloodlines, sizzling speed and rocket arm, lacked answers.
The same Auburn offense that had moved the ball so breathlessly against Mississippi State a week prior, scoring 56 points without so much as a blink, was confounded, corralled and contained all afternoon by Florida’s defense, a ferocious band of bullies befitting a brace of alligators.
Alligators, you see, have inhabited Florida’s swamps, rivers, lakes and marshlands for centuries. They were here before Florida was Florida and have remained, even as the land around them has changed, whether from massive human population growth or natural reasons. They’ve adapted, from aggressive hunters to the hunted, evolving in ecosystem, size and hunting habits.
Through all the changes, the one constant, according to research conducted at the University of Florida, is the way alligators will defend themselves. In particular, alligators will defend their homes in fierce congregations. Defense is a trait universal to the species — natural and cultural.
It was much like that Saturday as the Florida defense, a band of fast, physical and aggressive Gators, defend their Swamp.
It was a defensive performance that will be remembered in Gainesville for generations, from the opening whistle to the final snap.
Florida’s rabid band of roving reptilians swarmed and stuffed and suffocated Auburn’s “New Gus” offense all day. Midway through the third quarter, with Florida clinging to a four-point lead, the Tigers had managed only 3 first downs, and were still below 100 yards of total offense.
That they were in the game at all was partly a gift and partly because Florida’s offense, while more electric than Auburn’s, was being tossed into tumult — and turned over, four times, in fact — in its own right by Auburn’s nasty front seven, led by the incomparable defensive tackle Derrick Brown.
But no matter how many chances Auburn’s defense gave the offense to win the game, Florida’s defense wouldn’t let it happen. The Gators were just more physical, tougher and better.
Forget the noise all week about how this Auburn team was far superior to Florida and would roll into Gainesville and leave with a dominant win. Forget the chatter that Florida was a pretender and that Auburn, with its native son Nix at quarterback and mighty defense, was a College Football Playoff Contender. Forget that until Lee Corso donned the Gator head on “College Gameday,” most everyone in America had chalked this up as a “manageable” game for Auburn that the Tigers should win handily.
After all, “New Gus” was calling the plays, Nix was the golden boy and Florida’s offensive line would be no match for Auburn’s vaunted defensive front.
The latter point turned out to be true, and may limit what the future holds for this Gators team, but that conversation can wait for another day.
What today’s conversation must be about is Florida’s championship-caliber defense, these defenders of The Swamp that made “New Gus” and his new star QB look lost and ordinary.
The tone was set on the game’s opening play, when Florida’s All-American candidate Jon Greenard blew up Auburn’s defensive line and forced Nix into a 2-yard pass into the Florida turf. Message sent, but it only got better for Florida from there.
Playing again without All-SEC defensive end Jabari Zuniga, the Gators came up with three different stops of Auburn on possessions where Auburn’s starting field position was inside Gators territory. Auburn hit two field goals, because Carlsons tend to make field goals for Auburn, but this was a game where one team managed to score touchdowns and the other settled for kicks.
Florida’s defense made sure it was on the right side of that equation.
Halftime adjustments did little to change things, with Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham getting the better of Malzahn again. Auburn’s second half possessions scripted: Punt, punt, interception, punt, turnover on downs, interception, end of game — and that doesn’t quite do justice to how thoroughly Florida’s defense dominated the game.
Perhaps no possession was bigger than Florida’s defensive stop late in the third quarter, on what would prove to be Auburn’s only drive of the day that covered more than 33 yards. After a Nix pass to Seth Williams set up Auburn up inside the Florida 15 yard-line, the Gators forced a 3rd and 12. Flushed only slightly by a closing Greenard, Nix misread a zone coverage and threw a strike to Florida safety Donovan Stiner, snuffing out Auburn’s 80-yard drive and its best chance of the day.
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It was fitting that before the fourth quarter began minutes later, the entire stadium sang the words to Gainesville native Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” where the southern crooner reminds us that “you could stand me up at the gates of hell and I won’t back down.”
Florida’s defense, defending their home field at the gates of hell, wouldn’t back down.
They didn’t back down a possession later, either. After a grown-man strip sack of Kyle Trask and fumble return by Derrick Brown again set Auburn up in Florida territory, the Tigers managed just 4 yards on first and second down, but seemed prepared to kick another field goal and cut the Florida lead to 1 when Zachary Carter and a congregation of hungry Gators swallowed up Nix for a 22-yard sack.
Instead of earning points, Auburn punted.
A play later, Lamical Perine, the guy Gus Malzahn told was “too slow” to play running back in the SEC, trucked an Auburn defender and outran several others on an 88-yard touchdown gallop that put the game — and any doubt over who was the better football team — to bed.
Florida’s offense, as mentioned, remains very much a unit with explosive capabilities and an elite wide receiving corps, but the ceiling is limited by an anemic offensive line that is warmly characterized as a work in progress. Kyle Trask, for all his toughness and the good he’s done spelling the injured Feleipe Franks, showed his youth tonight in only his third career start, fumbling four times and holding the ball too long on at least two of those turnovers.
His timing and internal clock should improve, but it may not matter much if he doesn’t have more time. And as great a personal story as Perine’s house call was — 88 of Florida’s 132 rushing yards came on one play– the Gators managed just 44 yards on 32 carries on the rest of the day.
Then again, with the fast, frenetic band of lunatic Gators running around on this Florida defense, the Gators offense won’t need to be great the remainder of this season. Serviceable, opportunistic and protective of the football should do just fine.
Every championship caliber rebuild — and make no mistake, Dan Mullen is still very much rebuilding this Florida program, even as it appears to be rising off the mat and dusting itself off after a decade in the wilderness — has a foundation.
For Florida, the foundation will be defense: A bone-crackling, back-against-the-wall, championship defense.
Saturday, that congregation of savage swamp lizards was why Florida was a better team than Auburn.
An elite defense might not be enough next week in Tiger Stadium.
But it has been good enough to get this Gators team to 6-0, and will give the Gators a chance to win every game they play this season.
Sometimes all you need to win a championship is a chance.