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Gators survive behind unlikely hero

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The Florida Gators are headed to the SEC Championship Game. Austin Hardin’s career-long 43-yard field goal with 2:22 remaining sent Florida past Vanderbilt, 9-7.

Going into Saturday’s game, few thought the troubled Gator kicking game would prove to be the difference. Most expected Florida to play their way into the title game for the first time since 2009.

They almost played their way out of it. After trailing at the half, 7-6, the Gators managed all of four first downs in the second half.

Florida turned the ball over four times and rushed for only 93 yards. They had only 6 turnovers during the previous 8 games. The Gators “accumulated” an eye-popping minus-18 yards of offense in the third quarter.

For their part, the 21-point underdog Commodores gave all they had on the defensive side of the ball. Had they been able to thread any kind of sustained offense together, Vanderbilt would have pulled one of the season’s biggest upsets.

A strong defensive performance from Vanderbilt is no surprise. Coming into the game, the Commodores ranked 23rd in the country in total defense and 24th in scoring defense. Their defensive rankings will improve next week.

Commodores’ coach Derek Mason had his team all-in for the running game. That was probably a sound strategy because quarterback Johnny McCrary showed little as a passer.

McCrary completed only three of 14 passes for 30 yards. On 47 of Vandy’s 48 rushing plays, they gained a grand total of 71 yards.

It was the other rushing play that had the Commodores leading until the waning moments. Ralph Webb, a graduate of Gainesville High School, scored on a second quarter 74-yard burst following a turnover.

As the fourth quarter clock wound down, Florida had plenty to worry about. All they needed was a field goal to win, but that was far from a sure thing even from close range.

The reason the Gators trailed was from a missed extra point by walk-on kicker Neil MacInnes, a pre-med student from Tampa Chamberlain. He was in for Hardin, who has struggled this season.

MacInnes, whose last field goal was four years ago at Chamberlain High, was on the field for a second quarter field goal attempt, but his main role was a decoy for a well-planned and well-executed fake and pitch to CeCe Jefferson. Before hitting the ground, Jefferson fumbled, giving the ball back to Vanderbilt.

Florida Coach Jim McElwain decided to go with Hardin for the game-winner, a decision that provide wise. Hardin’s kick split the uprights and the Gators had themselves an unexpectedly difficult victory.

“They figured out a way to win and I can’t tell you how proud I am of those players,” said McElwain. “And, I can’t tell you how excited I am for Gators everywhere as we keep moving forward on this journey.”

That journey now includes a December trip on Interstate 75 to Atlanta to face the winner of the SEC Western Division.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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