'Bama controls line of scrimmage, knocks out Brantley, batters Florida
Florida found out first-hand how far it needs to go to complete with the SEC elite
The Crimson Tide allowed a quick ten points before manhandling the Gators
Coach Nick Saban will use early mistakes as a teaching tool as LSU looms Nov. 5
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No truer words have been spoken than the ones that came from Florida coach Will Muschamp's mouth when he made his opening statement at his introductory news conference at Florida Field in December. "The SEC," Muschamp said, "is a line of scrimmage league."
Alabama and LSU own the line of scrimmage. Alabama and LSU own the SEC. Saturday at Florida Field, Muschamp's Gators learned precisely how much better they must get along the line of scrimmage if they ever hope to stand astride the conference like the players who roamed The Swamp before them. Florida's offensive linemen watched helplessly as Alabama's Courtney Upshaw bent quarterback John Brantley in a direction human beings aren't supposed to bend. Florida's defensive linemen got flattened by Crimson Tide hogs Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack just in time to watch Trent Richardson's calves thunder past.
The final score -- a 38-10 Alabama win -- was ugly, but not nearly as ugly as some of the final statistics. Alabama allowed 15 rushing yards on 29 carries. Take away yards lost from sacks, and the Gators still gained only 53 rushing yards. Alabama allowed nine first downs, only one of them on the ground. Florida backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, who entered Saturday averaging 7.5 yards a carry, gained eight yards on 14 carries. After allowing two quick scores, Alabama pitched a shutout for 50 minutes. On offense, Alabama ran for 226 yards on 43 carries. Richardson ran for 181 himself, scoring two touchdowns. In the second half, the Crimson Tide gained 144 yards on 24 carries -- a six-yard average.
"That was awesome," Alabama left tackle Jones said of that final stat. "That's what we want every game -- to really impose our will in the second half."
Here's the scary part. Florida's defensive line is good, and Alabama dominated that line. Not trying-to-find-a-positive-after-a-bloodbath good, but legitimately good. "Outstanding," Alabama center William Vlachos said without a trace of sarcasm. "They've got some young guys on their front seven that are going to be absolute superstars in this league." Yet the Gators could do nothing. "We didn't control the line of scrimmage tonight," Florida defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. "There were times we looked good, and there were times they ran right through us."
In a way, Saturday's win was the perfect game for Alabama coach Nick Saban. He left Gainesville with a dominant win, but he also left with film of early mistakes that will allow him to dog-cuss his players for a week as they prepare to slaughter Vanderbilt. Florida's first play from scrimmage couldn't have provided a better teachable moment. The Gators came out with two tight ends -- a formation Alabama had barely practiced against -- and receiver Andre Debose toasted Tide cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, snagged a Brantley pass and sprinted in for a 65-yard touchdown. After Alabama stalled in the red zone and kicked a field goal, the Gators drove deep again before settling for a field goal.
Until they face LSU on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa, this might be as close to panicked as Alabama will get. Except the Tide didn't panic. The defense came out too excited, Upshaw said, and didn't play a sound first quarter. "At home, we just walk out the tunnel behind Coach Saban," Upshaw said. "Tonight, everybody was hype."
Saban wanted a teachable moment like this. He wanted to know his offense could rise if his defense faltered. "I said there was going to be a day where the defense was not playing well and our offense would need to control the game," Saban said. "Today was the day."
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Once the Tide settled, the Gators didn't stand a chance. A Richardson touchdown tied the game at 10 late in the first quarter. Early in the second, Upshaw was engaged with Florida lineman Xavier Nixon when Brantley threw in Upshaw's direction. While still hand-fighting with Nixon, Upshaw snared the ball. The 6-foot-2, 265-pound Jack linebacker then sprinted 45 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. "It just sort of fell into my lap," Upshaw said of his interception.
Down 24-10, Florida cracked Alabama's red zone once more. Then the nightmare began. On second-and-eight from the 15, Brantley fumbled while being sacked by Alex Watkins for 12-yard loss. Officials fell asleep and didn't notice Brantley never actually recovered the ball. The play should have been a fumble return for a touchdown by Adrian Hubbard. Had they known what would happen on the next play, everyone in orange and blue probably would have begged the officials to give Hubbard the touchdown. Instead, Brantley took a snap on third-and-20 from the 25. Upshaw pounced on him, and Brantley's right leg was trapped underneath his body. Upshaw stood. Brantley did not.
Trainers carried Brantley directly into the locker room. During Saturday's first half, the former national high school player of the year had looked like the quarterback Florida recruited instead of the pro-style peg stuffed into the dual-threat hole that was the Gators' offense in Urban Meyer's final season at the helm. He left after completing 11-of-16 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown against one of America's best defenses.
After the loss, Muschamp would not discuss the severity of Brantley's injury. Freshman backup Jeff Driskel finished the game, and if the pain on Brantley's face immediately following the injury was any indication, Driskel will make his first start next week in Baton Rouge against LSU, which might have the only defense in the country as terrifying as Alabama's.
Meanwhile, Alabama will return to Tuscaloosa on a high. The Gators may have only tested the Tide for a quarter, but Alabama players were grateful for the brief challenge and even more satisfied with their response. For Alabama's offensive linemen, watching Florida's defensive line crumble as if flattened by a steamroller in the second half made everything else worthwhile. "It's why you play as an offensive lineman. Not a whole lot of things in our job description are that fun," Vlachos said. "But when you start seeing stuff like that -- especially in The Swamp against a defensive front seven that's as good as that one is -- it makes you feel good."
While the Gators reassess their goals with full knowledge of where they stand with respect to the league's elite, the Tide will try to keep their minds on the three tasks they must complete before they can take the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 5 in a showdown that will prove once and for all who owns the line of scrimmage and who owns the SEC. "Who do we play Nov. 5?" Alabama's Jones asked with a smile.
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