Orlando Sentinel

Now is not the time to give up on Jones

Gators QB showed grit and determinat­ion in comeback vs. Alabama

- By Edgar Thompson

GAINESVILL­E — Florida had too many mistakes and missed opportunit­ies but still almost upset the top-ranked Alabama.

Three things we learned during the No. 11 Gators’ 31-29 loss on Saturday.

1. Don’t give up on quarterbac­k Emory Jones just yet Many were ready for coach Dan Mullen to replace Jones with big-play backup Anthony Richardson after the opener against FAU. The calls grew louder after Richardson ripped off two more touchdown plays longer than 70 yards last weekend at USF.

Against Alabama, fans mixed in some boos for Jones after his slow start. But Richardson was sidelined because of right hamstring tightness after an 80-yard touchdown run against USF.

Forced to carry the load, Jones eventually showed grit, guile and

a grasp of Mullen’s offense to spearhead an unlikely comeback.

Jones overcame a first-quarter intercepti­on in UF territory that allowed Alabama to seize a 21-3 lead. UF followed with two scoreless possession­s, including a three-andout, but Jones remained engaged and confident.

“I walked around and told everybody, ‘Let’s keep going and keep trying to score,’ and eventually we put up some points,” he said.

The highlight was a 99-yard touchdown drive ending with a 5-yard run by Jones following an 18-yard completion to Xzavier Henderson.

“You just can’t flinch in game situations,” Mullen said. “These guys didn’t flinch today.”

Jones’ resolve was tested, but his teammates expected him to stay the course — and continue to do so the rest of the season.

“I watched this guy work two years in a row,” tailback Nay’Quan Wright said. “I’ve seen the preparatio­n, the time and effort that he put into his game. Each week he’s just building and building and building. Before you know it, we’ll be going in the right direction.”

Jones will not lead the way alone. He and Richardson work as a team.

“He was helping me out the whole game,” Jones said. “Every time I came to the sideline, I asked him: Did he see anything that I didn’t? He’d tell me what I could’ve did better. I talked with him after the game, and he was excited.

“He told me I played my butt off and that I need to be proud of myself from this game.”

After the game Richardson praised Jones’ effort, tweeting, “you definitely shocked the world today! Continue to strive for greatness & keep playing ball my boy! Let’s keep it going”

Jones replied, “Appreciate that my boy We have to keep competing, working to get better everyday!”

Richardson’s recovery is ahead of schedule, Mullen said, and the quarterbac­k could return for Saturday’s game vs. Tennessee. The 6-foot-4, 236-pound redshirt freshman has limited experience but an abundance of athletic ability.

The 6-foot-2, 211-pound Jones, though, is a redshirt junior with four years in Mullen’s system and plenty of big games under his belt. Few get bigger than a visit from Alabama in a sold-out Swamp.

Jones, who threw for 181 yards and rushed for 80, could have given in to the moment but instead rose to the occasion to give the Gators a chance.

“Emory stepped up his game this week, had a pretty good darn game,” Mullen said.

2. Alabama appears beatable

The Crimson Tide were uncharacte­ristically sloppy, with 11 penalties, and not physical enough up front to deliver a knockout punch with UF on the ropes. The gap could be closing, or maybe Mullen has figured out how to challenge Nick Saban.

Few in the SEC have. Two teams, the 2020 and ’21 Gators, have played Alabama closer than 15 points since the Tide’s current 17-game winning streak began with the 2019 season’s Citrus Bowl win against Michigan. UF’s two losses were by a combined eight points, including a 52-46 defeat during December’s SEC Championsh­ip.

Meanwhile, Alabama has won the other 15 games by an average of 31.7.

“A lot of teams play Alabama and I think they sometimes don’t think they’re going to win the game,” Mullen said. “Our guys certainly expected to win the game. Played that way. We did last year; we did this year.”

Mullen fell to 0-11 against Saban, but his play-calling and in-game adjustment­s have matched the 69-yearold’s defensive mastery.

On Saturday, the Gators shook off a terrible start and soon had Saban’s defense on the run, unleashing the speed-option play. Time and again, Jones and UF’s tailbacks beat the Crimson Tide to the edge to gain 258 yards while converting five third downs and scoring four times on the ground — just the fifth time an Alabama defense under Saban yielded three rushing touchdowns.

“They had a great plan offensivel­y against us,” Saban said. “They kept running the speed option. Took us out of a lot of things we wanted to do.”

UF leaned on the same play to upset LSU in 2018.

Mullen has pushed for more matchups with Alabama and other SEC West opponents, a given once the league adds Texas and Oklahoma in 2025. The Gators coach sees another one with Saban in his near future.

“I hope we play them really soon, like later this season,” Mullen said of an SEC title-game rematch. “I want that opportunit­y.”

3. The defense finally has something to build on

Fifteen minutes in, the Gators looked lost on defense and Mullen appeared to face a looming decision on embattled coordinato­r Todd Grantham’s future.

Mullen stuck with Grantham after a historical­ly bad 2020 season, to chagrin of a vocal segment of the fan base. The decision was beginning to look misguided as Alabama seized a 21-3 lead.

A blitz on 3rd-and-9 was trademark Grantham on the opening possession. But redshirt freshman quarterbac­k Bryce Young recognized the call and picked up 11 yards to keep alive the Crimson Tide’s first scoring drive.

Alabama exploited the flats and UF could not make plays in space during the next two series, both ending in touchdowns. The Gators closed the first quarter without even a QB hurry while the Tide was 3 of 3 on third down and in complete command.

Four pass-interferen­ce penalties undercut the effort, with three coming on third down to extend scoring drives. At least two of the flags were questionab­le.

“They’re judgment calls that can go either way,” Mullen said. “But we gave up too many first downs penalty-wise to allow them to keep some drives alive, especially early on a couple of errors weren’t good.”

Rather than collapse, the Gators continued to push the pocket and eventually wore down Alabama’s front. UF ended with seven tackles for losses, including two sacks, and six QB hurries.

The Crimson Tide finished with just 91 rushing yards and 324 overall, including just three during the second quarter.

“We just dug ourselves an early hole,” Mullen said.

The Gators might have completed their escape with a second-half defensive stand. Alabama twice answered UF scoring drives.

But Grantham’s defense was more sound and stingy. It’s a step in the right direction as the Gators focus on defending their SEC East title and forcing a rematch with Alabama.

 ?? JOHN RAOUX/AP ?? Florida quarterbac­k Emory Jones scrambles as he scans the field during a 31-29 loss to Alabama.
JOHN RAOUX/AP Florida quarterbac­k Emory Jones scrambles as he scans the field during a 31-29 loss to Alabama.
 ?? JOHN RAOUX/AP ?? Florida head coach Dan Mullen is now 0-11 against Alabama’s Nick Saban, but the Gators have come close to winning during the past two meetings with the Crimson Tide.
JOHN RAOUX/AP Florida head coach Dan Mullen is now 0-11 against Alabama’s Nick Saban, but the Gators have come close to winning during the past two meetings with the Crimson Tide.

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