A lot of kids who grow up in Alabama dream of playing for either the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Auburn Tigers.
As running back Lamical Perine blossomed late in his career at Theodore High School in Mobile, he picked up scholarship offers from a number of Power Five schools.
Auburn was not one of them. Head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff thought he was too slow to play running back in the SEC, Perine said. At SEC Media Days in July, Perine vowed that he would make Auburn regret that decision when they played this season.
“I showed them today,” he said after the No. 10 Gators’ 24-13 defeat of the No. 7 Tigers (5-1, 1-1 SEC) on Saturday.
Yes he did, in the most epic way possible.
With the Gators (6-0, 3-0) clinging to a 17-13 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining and backed up at their own 12-yard line, Perine took a handoff and was met by a Tigers’ defender near the line of scrimmage. He broke that tackle and headed for the right sideline. He made another defender miss and sprinted 88 yards for a game-clenching score that sent the Swamp into pandemonium.
He looked pretty fast while doing so.
“Almost brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “Just a big-time atmosphere and big-time crowd. I’m glad I was able to make that big-time play.”
It was the fifth-longest touchdown rush in UF history and the longest since Emmitt Smith’s 96-yarder in 1988. Ironically, Smith attended the game and was the guest picker on College GameDay on Saturday morning. He spoke with Perine after the game.
“He came up to me after the game and was just like, ‘You did a great job running the ball, fighting through adversity,’” Perine said. “That was big coming from a great guy like him.”
Prior to the run, he had carried the ball eight times for just 31 yards. He finished with 14 carries for 130 yards, a new career-high and the sixth 100+-yard outing of his career.
“That’s what you want,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “That’s the type of things he can do. When you look at his leadership and what he’s done, I mean, maybe hasn’t been like putting up big numbers, but he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, taking care of business. Then he comes out and has a 130-yard rushing night.”
Mullen said he knew that the bulk of their offense was going to have to come through the air against Auburn’s stout defensive front, but he wanted to remain as balanced as possible. They threw it 39 times and ran it 33 times. He was pleased with the way the offensive line kept battling despite little success early on to create the explosive play when they absolutely needed it.
“[Perine] works really, really hard,” quarterback Kyle Trask said. “That just kind of results from our resiliency, like I said, which is just never giving up, just keeping pounding it on them and, eventually, they’re going to break one.”
Florida’s struggles in the running game this season have been well-documented. They entered Saturday ranked just 11th in the SEC at 141.4 rushing yards per game. Fans expected Perine to contend for a 1,000-yard season. Instead, some of those same fans were clamoring for Dameon Pierce to replace Perine as UF’s primary running back this week.
All week long, the experts gushed about Auburn’s talented and deep defensive line and gave the Gators virtually no chance of being able to run the ball.
Perine also said they felt a bit disrespected by being dropped a spot in the Associated Press poll this week despite beating Towson 38-0.
“This should be an eye-awakening for a lot of people in the country, and I hope they put us up a little bit,” he said. “I hope we get higher than 10 this time.”
All of the outside noise combined to create a fired-up, more intense version of Perine. He had something to prove, and he put his team on his back.
“My mindset was totally different,” he said. “I knew I had to make some big-time plays for my team. A lot of people doubted me, but I just continued to keep working and go out there and just try to help my teammates to this victory.”
Due to Perine’s dagger and a strong defensive performance, UF out-rushed the Tigers 132-124. Auburn entered the day as the league’s second-best rushing team. Not even the most ardent Gator fan saw that coming.
Perine said he didn’t get frustrated despite the offensive line’s poor start to the season. He remained patient, kept working hard in practice and trusted that his opportunities would come.
“Just control what I can control,” he said. “I know I’m a big-time player, and a lot of people, they doubt me sometimes, but I come in every day and give my all for my teammates. It was just an honor to be able to make a big play for this team.”
Now the objective is to make Perine’s run against Auburn not an anomaly. To do that, the offensive line will need to continue to make massive strides every week.
“It was pretty exciting,” tight end Kyle Pitts said. “Just happy for him, and the offensive line, we got some work to do, but we’ll find a way to get it right.”
Saturday was a day that won’t soon be forgotten in Gator Nation. College GameDay was in town, it was homecoming, it was the first matchup of top-10 unbeaten teams in the Swamp in seven years and the Gators wore throwback uniforms. Perine provided the exclamation point.
“I’m a humble guy, but everybody knows when it’s time to play big games, I’m a guy they can look to,” he said.
Auburn learned this lesson the hard way.