This time, it didn’t come down to the final play. This time, Feleipe Franks was the backup plan.
The result was still the same as the Gators’ first two against SEC opponents.
Malik Davis rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns, LaMical Perine added three house calls of his own and Florida held off Vanderbilt, 38-24 in the Swamp. The Gators have now beaten the Commodores 26 of the last 27 times, and more importantly, are off to a less than perfect but still spotless 3-0 start in SEC play.
The victory came with a price, though. Jim McElwain’s plan of infusing the Gator offense with Luke Del Rio was derailed before halftime when he suffered an apparent injury near the end of the second quarter. Del Rio was later determined to have a broken collarbone, and will have season ending surgery tomorrow. Florida also lost wideout Tyrie Cleveland for at least a week, maybe more, when he suffered a high ankle sprain late in the fourth quarter.
For whatever reason, though, the Gator offense appeared to be much more in sync with Franks at the controls than with Del Rio, even though Del Rio didn’t play that badly. In addition, Franks clearly gives Doug Nussmeier a bigger playbook to work with. No sooner had Franks entered the game than he fired a laser down the field to Tyrie Cleveland for a 49 yard gain. And that proved to be the catalyst when the Gators reeled off 17 straight to knock the Commodores down for the count.
But things were quite nerve wracking before that point. Florida struggled in the first half- again. Vandy twice gashed the Gators’ defense for long touchdown drives right after Perine put Florida up 7-0 and then 14-7 with touchdown runs. And other than those two Perine scores, Florida’s offense did nothing with the ball the entire first half. The Commodores then took a 17-14 lead right before the half.
Then Del Rio got hurt. And for one reason or another, Florida’s fortunes took a 180 degree turn.
Franks’ rocket to Cleveland set up an easy field goal to tie the game at halftime. Two possessions later, Franks hit Moral Stephens twice in a row to put the Gators on the shadow of the goal line, where Malik Davis gave Florida the lead for keeps by muscling his way into the end zone. And on the ensuing drive, Franks badly overthrew Josh Hammond- but it was so badly overthrown that the Vanderbilt safety could only get a finger on it and tip it further down the field to a diving Freddie Swain. Three plays later, Perine punched it in to increase the Gators’ lead to 31-17.
Vandy made one last ditch effort, scoring with three minutes to go to close within seven, but Florida recovered the ensuing onside kick. And on the ensuing fourth and one, Davis busted off a 39 yard touchdown run. Ball game.
The Florida defense played much better in the second half than it had for most of the season, really. Vandy could only muster 116 yards of offense in the final 30 minutes, and 70 of them came on one drive when Florida was basically in prevent mode. And even with the injuries to Del Rio and Cleveland, the overall takeaway from this game is a positive one. Between the defense’s improvement, another strong game on the ground, the reinsertion of the higher ceilinged-QB into the lineup, and an LSU team that lost to Troy up next on the docket, there’s a lot to feel hopeful about.
In very simple terms, Florida did not look good in its first three games of the season. They won two of those games despite a laundry list of problems, not because they deserved to. In a lot of ways, Florida probably deserved to be 0-3 coming into this Vanderbilt game. They deserve credit for beating Tennessee and Kentucky, but not for the way in which they did. But this past week, the Gators demonstrated the first step of the improvement they’ll need to make in order to seriously contend for the SEC East.
And for such a young team that looked so exploitable early on, that’s really all you can ask for.