On the final play of the first quarter Saturday afternoon at The Swamp, Auburn linebacker KJ Britt stripped Kyle Trask of the football at the Auburn 23-yard line. The scramble for the loose football was won by Auburn's 320-pound All-Planetary defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who needed only three or four steps to reach full speed once he secured possession. Brown instinctively swerved to his left and headed for the West sideline where he picked up a convoy of blockers. It was full steam ahead for the touchdown that was going to give the Tigers their first lead of the game.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the end zone. Somewhere around the Florida 38 the grass gremlins did their thing and Brown went sprawling to the turf a full 35 yards away from glory land.
Two plays later, freshman quarterback Bo Nix threw the first of his three interceptions on the afternoon, this one to Shawn Davis, who made a spectacular leaping one-handed grab at the Florida 26. By the time he was brought down 41 yards later and deep in Auburn territory, Auburn's Jack Driscoll had committed a personal foul that tacked another 15 yards onto the runback. A couple plays later, Trask found Josh Hammond on a crossing pattern that was good for 13 yards and a touchdown that gave the Gators a 14-6 lead.
Late in the third quarter with Auburn trailing the Gators, 17-13, Florida busted a coverage on a vertical route run by the Tigers' Seth Williams. Williams was all alone around the Florida 18 without a single Gator defender in the same area code. Nix's pass was a little high but not so high that Williams couldn't reach up and snag it then waltz his way into the end zone.
But another funny thing happened on the way to the end zone. Another set of grass gremlins got into the act. As Williams came down with the ball, his feet caught in the turf and he went sprawling forward to the 13. It was a 46-yard gain and the biggest offensive play Auburn would make all day, but instead of a go-ahead TD, the Tigers still had work to do. Two plays and a false start later, Nix didn't see Donovan Stiner in the end zone when he cut loose with pass that hit Stiner on the numbers for an easy interception.
For all the critical stops the Florida defense made on this day, two of the bigger plays were made by the grass gremlins. Sometimes the margins that separate victory and defeat are as simple as a cleat catching in the turf. Most people would call those two plays lucky breaks and they would be right, but that would also diminish all the critical stops the 10th-ranked Gators (6-0, 3-0 SEC) made to put away the 7th-ranked Tigers (5-1, 2-1 SEC), 24-13.
In the first quarter, for example, Auburn couldn't convert the first two of the three Florida fumbles into touchdowns, settling instead for field goals. After the second fumble, Florida's Jeawon Taylor and David Reese stopped Auburn tailback Boobie Whitlow in his tracks on a third-and-three at the UF 21.That was the second time in the quarter (the first was on Auburn's initial possession) when Whitlow was nailed for no gain (Reese and Adam Shuler
In the second quarter with the Gators leading Auburn 14-6, Luke Ancrum and Mohamoud Diabate combined to hold Whitlow to one yard on a third-and-two, forcing a punt. Reese and Jeremiah Moon tackled Whitlow for no gain in the third quarter when the Tigers faced a third-and-one.
Later in the third quarter, Jonathan Greenard harassed Nix into a bad throw that CJ Henderson broke up on a third-and-nine.
Early in the fourth quarter, Trask was sacked and stripped of the football by Brown, who returned it to the Auburn 40. Four plays later, the Tigers faced third-and-eight at the Florida 38. For the most part, Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had been content to rush three or four and drop everybody else in coverage, but on this play he brought the house. Nix was startled by the Florida jailbreak rush so he retreated and tried to double back twice. Surrounded by Gators, he slipped and fell 22 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Following the Auburn punt, Lamical Perine broke a couple of tackles and then sprinted to an 88-yard touchdown that gave the Gators the 24-13 lead.
On Auburn's next possession, James Houston got a third down sack of Nix, forcing the Tigers to go for it on fourth down. This time, the Gators dropped everyone in coverage. Nix tried to run for it but was stopped six yards shy of the first down.
Marco Wilson got Florida's third and final interception on the next Auburn possession.
Florida needed every one of these big plays from the defense because it was a rather strange day for the offense. While Trask threw for 234 yards and two touchdowns; while Freddie Swain had a career day (six catches for 146 yards and a TD); and while Lamical Perine ran for more yards (130) than the entire Auburn team (124), the Gators did force the defense to play like its hair was on fire. Normally, you lose big when you turn the ball over four times and then botch a fake punt deep in your own territory that leads to a touchdown by the bad guys. But for all the near disasters, the Gators had enough defensive answers to dominate the game. Auburn was not going to pound the Gators.
Not on this day. Not against this defense.
Florida held Auburn to 2-14 on third down conversions. The Tigers' vaunted running game (averaging 251 yards per game prior to Saturday) managed only 3.6 yards per attempt. Nix went 11-27 passing for 145 yards. Put into better perspective, if you take away the 46-yard pass to Williams and a 32-yarder that went for a TD on a blown coverage and he managed just 67 yards on his other 25 attempts.
That Auburn offense came into the game averaging 38 points and 454.4 yards per game but the Tigers scored only one touchdown and struggled for 269 yards against the Gators. This was an elite performance by an elite defense and yet, for all their defensive heroics, the difference between victory and defeat was two plays that had absolutely nothing to do with Florida's tackling, pursuit or scheme.
Perhaps on any other Saturday, Brown never stumbles and falls when he has an escort of blockers and only green grass and the end zone waiting for him. Perhaps on any other Saturday, Seth Williams makes the leaping grab and gets his feet under him when he comes down, after which he walks into the end zone.
Perhaps, but not on this day.
Those two plays brought back a flood of memories to 2006 when South Carolina came to The Swamp and the Gators blocked an extra point and two field goals in the fourth quarter. On the second blocked field goal, it took a 6-7 Jarvis Moss leaping as high as he could and getting a few fingers on the football to save a 17-16 Florida win in a season in which the Gators went on to win the national championship.
The Gators are a long way away from playing for a national championship, but they've already had three great escapes – Miami, Kentucky and now Auburn. Either this team is living on borrowed time or perhaps it's one of those years when even the grass gremlins make plays when they have to.