No. 10 Florida beat No. 7 Auburn, 24-13, on Saturday in the kind of matchup Gators patrons grew to expect in the 1990s and 2000s, then grew to miss in the 2010s, and the emotion flared everywhere. It turned up in a running back almost in tears as he made a clinching 88-yard run while most of the 90,584 in attendance boomed. It turned up in the swell of noise greeting a respectable quarterback when he reemerged from the tunnel after a second-quarter pop in the knee turned out to be a merciful sprain. It turned up in a stirring rendition of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” blaring through Petty’s hometown between the third and fourth quarters.
And it turned up when second-year coach Dan Mullen made his way to a postgame microphone and said a word generally spelled “whew” but that sounded like “Hooooo!”
“Just want to let everybody know that we’re here,” said running back Lamical Perine, his 88-yard run the longest for Florida since a certain Emmitt Smith went for 96 in 1988 against Mississippi State.
“I think this one’ll definitely wake everybody up” around the country, said Kyle Trask, the redshirt junior quarterback freshly famed for never having started from ninth grade until this past Sept. 14, who departed to respectful applause with 10:18 left in the second quarter, then returned to the game to a swell of cheers just nine game minutes later.
“I just feel like we’ve been working so hard that we’re earning our respect,” said safety Shawn Davis, part of a defense that didn’t let Auburn peep past the 100-yard mark in total offense until early in the third quarter.
And then, “ ‘The Swamp,’ what it used to be,” Mullen said, echoing a common quotation. “This is what ‘The Swamp’ is, and I think that’s what we expect it to be.” He soon added, “It’s hard for any team to come in here . . . if that’s how the crowd’s going to be.”
While “The Swamp” behaved thusly, Florida (6-0, 3-0 SEC) provided just enough plays to make it thunder. Two in particular shone — a 64-yard pass touchdown from Trask to Freddie Swain on Florida’s second play from scrimmage — “a confidence booster,” as Swain put it — and Perine’s 88-yard stomp up the right sideline and beyond the final guy lunging at him with 9:04 left. That boomer loosened a weirdly tight game from 17-13 to its closing 24-13.
From the get-go in the giant commotion, when Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix made a little tour of his offensive linemen to bark a play call into their earholes, “The Swamp” conspired with the Florida defense to provide a reminder about Nix: This was his sixth college game.
As this became a game Auburn fans hope he’ll recollect as an important thud along the path to chronic highlights, the son of an Auburn quarterback often looked like somebody who was born in February 2000. (He was.) His passing could not free Auburn’s vaunted rushing very many times, and he wound up with 11 completions on 27 attempts for 145 yards.
Nix threw slightly too far toward Seth Williams on an electrifying 46-yard play in the third quarter with the score still 17-13, and Williams had to lunge and fall to get it 13 yards from the end zone, rather than catching it in stride and scoring easily. Nix threw to the ground before Williams on a hopeful slant two plays later. Nix threw an interception to Donovan Stiner in an end zone too crowded for such a try. And in a symbolic play, Nix ran backward, veering here and veering there into a 22-yard sack that preceded Perine’s smash run.
Florida’s defense proved so bothersome that even Auburn’s touchdown had a wince to it. It came just after Mullen called for a fake punt that failed through more of Auburn’s excellent tackling.
“They gave up one score, and that was on me,” said Mullen, an offensive coordinator here late last decade during the Urban Meyer glory days, then a head coach for nine seasons at Mississippi State. “If I didn’t fake the punt, they probably don’t get the touchdown. I ended up causing their only touchdown.”
That mattered more than it might have because Auburn’s defensive line, among the country’s best units of any kind, kept causing turnovers. Three of Florida’s four lost fumbles came via sacks by the Auburn line. The 318-pound defensive tackle Derrick Brown took off twice with the ball, once rumbling 41 yards downfield until he seemed to simply fall.
Yet Auburn (5-1, 2-1) wrung just six points from those four turnovers as the defense and “The Swamp” kept thickening.
Within the drama played two individual dramas, involving Perine and Trask.
The former had gotten to a meeting at 8 a.m. Monday with, he said, “a mind-set totally different.” He’s an Alabamian whom Auburn hadn’t recruited, so he said Saturday: “I just felt like they weren’t very interested in me at the time. They probably thought I was a little too slow, as everybody knows.”
Everybody laughed then, and he said, 130 rushing yards in fresh memory, “I wanted them to understand that it meant a lot to me to get out there.” He said, “I know I’m a big-time player, and a lot of people, they doubt me sometimes. . . . It was just an honor, man, to be able to make a big play for this team.”
Even “The Swamp” went quiet when Trask, the marvel of patience and toil who played backup quarterback at Manvel High in Texas and backup for three years at Florida before starting these past three games, went down in the second quarter with a knee injury too scary to study.
After Auburn’s Marlon Anderson got blocked and held to a position low enough that he rammed into Trask’s knee, the 6-foot-5 quarterback felt “a lot of pain” and “felt a little pop.” He said, “It was just a really scary moment for me because I know knees are nothing to play around with.”
He got up and retreated through the tunnel to applause. While the trainers studied him, he asked how quarterback Emory Jones was doing and felt stoked Jones had gotten Florida to a field goal.
When they came back to him with the results, he said: “I honestly didn’t know what I was about to hear. I was probably ready to hear the [bad news], I guess.”
News of a sprain lifted him, and then the crowd lifted him more. “Nothing was given to us in this game,” he said. “It was all earned.”
“We’re building,” Mullen said. “You know, we’re building. I know what the Gator standard is, and I know what the expectations are, and trust me, my expectations are even higher.”
He said that soon after saying, “Just a regular day in ‘The Swamp,’ huh?”
They do hope it will become so.