GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Of course a game between two offenses that seemed allergic to the goal line for three-and-a-half quarters would end with a perfectly thrown Hail Mary. Here are three thoughts from Florida’s 26–20 stunner against Tennessee.
1. Moments after fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium booed a third-down call that seemed to suggest Florida was playing for overtime, Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks heaved a pass that fell perfectly into the hands of receiver Tyrie Cleveland for a 63-yard touchdown as time expired to give Florida a 26–20 win against Tennessee. The run that drew the boos gave the Gators a first down at their own 37-yard line with nine seconds remaining. Florida could conceivably take a shot to get in field goal range and then let kicker Eddy Pineiro try to win the game. But Franks got flushed to the right, kept the play alive and delivered a beautiful ball to Cleveland, who had snuck behind Tennessee’s zone coverage.
“You see the ball in the air, and I didn’t really think he could get under it and catch it,” Tennessee defensive tackle Kendall Vickers said.
The last time the Volunteers came to Gainesville, Will Grier completed a fourth-and-14 pass to Antonio Callaway for a 37-yard touchdown to give the Gators a one-point win. Then Grier got suspended and transferred to West Virginia. Earlier this year, Callaway—the Gators’ best receiver—was indefinitely suspended. It seemed the offense would never find its groove again. It still may not be able to operate consistently, but for one glorious down on Saturday it worked perfectly.
The Gators have sought a capable quarterback since Tim Tebow left following the 2009 season. Grier seemed to be that player, but his one-year suspension for a positive test in an NCAA-administered drug screen and subsequent transfer left Florida scrambling again. Last year, transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby guided the offense with middling results. Franks, a redshirt freshman, started the season opener against Michigan but was benched in favor of Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire. Saturday, Florida coach Jim McElwain stuck with Franks, who completed 18 of 28 passes for 212 yards and one touchdown. He was far from perfect—a fourth-quarter interception nearly cost Florida the game—but he came through in the most critical moment.
2. Tennessee coach Butch Jones and his staff will get second-guessed mercilessly after this loss. Why didn’t they hand the ball to tailback John Kelly (19 carries, 141 yards, one touchdown) on first-and-goal from the one-yard line in the third quarter? Why didn’t they hand it to Kelly on first-and-goal from the nine after Rashaan Gaulden’s interception of Franks late in the fourth?
Jones answered that second one after the game, saying Florida was playing Cover-Zero run blitzes near the goal line and that Tennessee coaches liked some of the passing options they had. One of those, a screen to Kelly, probably would have been a touchdown or a gain to the one-yard line, but Kelly couldn’t hang onto the ball.
Jones also said the Vols played nickel (five defensive backs) instead of dime (six defensive backs) on the final play because of injuries. Safety Todd Kelly Jr. missed the game with a knee injury, leaving Tennessee especially thin in the secondary.
The Vols will have to recover quickly after a gut-wrenching loss. They face UMass next week before a game against Georgia on Sept. 30 that could decide whether Tennessee has any chance at an SEC East title.
3. Before an explosion in the fourth, neither team’s offense could cross the goal line.
Tennessee had two first downs inside Florida’s one-yard line in the third quarter, never got the ball to human wrecking ball Kelly and wound up with zero points after quarterback Quinten Dormady threw an interception on third down.
The Gators reached the end zone when cornerback C.J. Henderson picked off Dormady early in the fourth quarter and returned the ball 16 yards for a touchdown. Later in the fourth, Florida freshman tailback Malik Davis appeared to score a game-sealing 76-yard touchdown, but a replay review showed Davis fumbled before he reached the end zone. The ball squirted out the back of the end zone, giving Tennessee possession at its own 20.
That drive ended with the game’s first offensive touchdown when Tennessee’s Kelly burst through a hole and blasted away for a 34-yard scoring run. But Tennessee’s missed opportunity in the red zone and three missed field goals doomed the Vols.