“What just happened?”
That was surely the question coming from Tennessee players, coaches and the legions of fans back in Rocky Top after Feleipe Franks’ 63-yard heave to Tyrie Cleveland gave Florida a shocking win at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday. Gator fans likely had the same reaction, but with a decidedly different outlook.
The score will merely say: Florida 26, Tennessee 20. But this game was so much more than that, both good and bad.
For those who missed the first three quarters didn’t miss much. Those who missed the fourth quarter, where 37 of the 46 points were scored, missed a lot.
After three quarters of the ugliness of turnovers, dropped passes, kicking woes and key penalties, Cinderella arrived at the party. After big plays, and a couple of mistakes, in the fourth quarter, the clock struck midnight for the Vols.
No one who saw it will forget Cleveland tumbling into the end zone as the clock showed triple zeros, giving the Gators an improbable victory. In the years to come, hundreds of thousands will likely proclaim they were there.
Tennessee outgained the Gators by 130 yards until the final play. They had 23 first downs to Florida’s 14.
Yet, it was a multitude of mistakes that kept them from beating the Gators for the second straight year.
Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady had three interceptions, including one tipped ball that went for a Gator touchdown. Vols’ offensive lineman Jack Jones had three false start penalties in the red zone, including two in the last two minutes, helping keep his team out of the end zone.
Kickers Brent Cimaglia and Aaron Medley combined to miss three field goals. Tennessee dropped two balls that would have been touchdowns, instead settling for a single field goal on those two possessions.
The Gators also turned the ball over three times, including one on a tipped ball interception that led to the tying field goal. The other two were fumbles created by good defensive plays, especially one in the fourth quarter after Malik Davis had run for 74 yards and was about to score a touchdown and go up by 17 points.
After Tennessee tied the game, the Gators took possession on their own 25 with 50 seconds left. Three plays gained only 12 yards and coach Jim McElwain, with the crowd booing, let the clock run down to 9 seconds before calling the second of three timeouts. That was all the time Franks’ and Cleveland needed to enter their names into Gator football history.
McElwain was asked following the game whether his freshman quarterback was playing like a veteran.
“No,” McElwain said, “but he showed he can throw it a long way.”
No one can deny the victory is profoundly important for this young team that is playing without 9 suspended players, including their two best offensive players in Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett. Along with missing teammates, the debacle against Michigan two weeks ago and the havoc caused by Hurricane Irma, McElwain was pleased with the win for many reasons.
“What they’ve gone through; and this is about them,” McElwain said. “Look at these fans; it’s a pretty cool deal. We’ve got some young guys. This is a fun group to be around. They know I love them. I’m just happy for them. That’s all it is.”
The victory was Florida’s seventh straight against Tennessee in Gainesville and their 12th in the last 13 games overall.