Feleipe Franks heaved a 63-yard touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland as the clock expired, and No. 24 Florida beat 23rd-ranked Tennessee 26-20 in a wild, wacky and sometimes unwatchable rivalry game Saturday.
Franks scrambled away from the rush on a first-and-10 play with 9 seconds remaining and found Cleveland behind safety Micah Abernathy for a Hail Mary that no one – especially the Volunteers – saw coming.
The final play capped a crazy fourth quarter in which the teams combined for 37 points and little, if any, defense.
“Oh my gosh, it’s indescribable,” Franks said. “You grow up waiting for moments like that to happen in your life, and when it does happen, you don’t have any words to describe it.”
Here’s one: Unpredictable.
Tennessee (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) can blame three missed field goals for not being ahead late. The Gators (1-1, 1-0) looked as if they had the game in hand early in the final frame, but found a way to let the Volunteers get back in it.
Franks had one huge mistake – an interception in Florida territory that set up Tennessee’s tying field goal. The Vols had three plays from the 9, but failed to get in the end zone and settled for three points with 50 seconds left.
It looked for sure as if it was headed for overtime – and then Franks found Cleveland.
“It’s crazy, it’s crazy,” Cleveland said. “I think this is about the fastest I ever ran.”
Fellow receiver Brandon Powell was the first to congratulate Cleveland in the end zone. Powell slapped him so hard upside the helmet that it knocked his mouthpiece out. Their teammates and coaches – all of them – piled on a few seconds later. It was a surreal scene, especially for a team that didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first seven quarters of the season.
Cleveland was one of the last players on the field. As he walked into the tunnel and toward the locker room, he turned and waved a final time to cheering fans.
He could have taken a bow.
“It was nothing to do with me,” coach Jim McElwain said. “Sometimes things like that are really special. I’ve got some burned images in my mind that I will carry with me the rest of my life.”
There was little to remember from the first three quarters. The defenses were mostly stout, but there were plenty of offensive mistakes and countless questionable play calls. Tennessee coaches, players and fans surely won’t forget having the ball first-and-goal at the 1 and nearly throwing an interception on first down and then getting flagged for a false start on second. The drive ended with an interception.
Florida led 6-3 to open the fourth and looked as if it iced the program’s 12th win in 13 years against Tennessee when C.J. Henderson returned an interception 16 yards for a score.
Freshman Malik Davis followed a series later with a 74-yard run. But the touchdown was overturned on review after officials realized Davis fumbled at the 2. Justin Martin caught Davis from behind and knocked the ball loose. It bounced through the end zone for a touchback.
The Vols scored five plays later, cutting it to 13-10 on John Kelly’s 24-yard run.
But Kelly also made a huge mistake. He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for doing the “Gator Chomp” in the end zone, and the penalty helped the Gators get the ball in Tennessee territory.
Franks found Powell in the flat for a 5-yard score, capping a 44-yard drive that gave Florida a double-digit lead.
Still, Tennessee kept coming back and figured it would end up in overtime for the second time in three games. It just never happened.
TENNESSEE: After giving up 655 yards in a double-overtime victory against Georgia Tech, the Vols were better defensively against Florida. But now they will need help to get to the SEC title game.
FLORIDA: The Gators clearly have issues offensively, but Franks surely gained confidence and the Gators may have found two playmakers in Davis and receiver Kadarius Toney – both freshmen.
Tennessee played without electric kick returner Evan Berry. The Vols also were without safety Todd Kelly Jr. because of a knee injury. Tennessee linebacker Cortez McDowell injured his left wrist in the game, and defensive back Rashaan Gaulden dealt with cramps.
TENNESSEE: Hosts UMass (0-4) next Saturday. It’s the first meeting between the schools and a good chance for the Volunteers to pick up a third victory.
FLORIDA: Plays its first road game of the season, at Kentucky. The Gators have won 30 in a row in the series, the longest active streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Republished with permission from the Associated Press.