Two years ago, Will Grier and Antonio Callaway achieved Gator immortality with this 63 yard touchdown pass to beat Tennessee, known simply as “The Play.”
It was a play for the ages, a 4th and 14 miracle that Florida used to erase three quarters plus five minutes of ineptitude, and keep the then-ten year winning streak going another year. Nobody expected that curl route to result in a touchdown, but thanks to a nasty block by Brandon Powell, it did. And surely, nobody expected anything to ever happen in subsequent Florida-Tennessee games that could match that.
On the contrary, Feleipe Franks and Tyrie Cleveland found a way to top it 721 days later. Call it what you want, but sometimes simple is better. So I’ll just call it “The Play: Part II.”
The play: Part II pic.twitter.com/dQq9B3QS69
— #InAllKindsOfWeather (@AllKindsWeather) September 16, 2017
This 63 yard walk-off touchdown bomb gave Florida its 12th win in the last 13 games against Tennessee, and its 25th in the last 32. And it was made even more incredible given the 59:51 of game action that preceded it.
The Gators opened the game by driving 65 yards down the field and settling for a chip shot field goal by Eddy Pineiro, and then the game devolved into an ugly, defensive slugfest. Florida wound up punting on five of its next eight possessions, and fumbling the ball away on two more, with only another Pineiro field goal to boost their half of the scoreboard. Tennessee, for their part, managed several solid drives, but would always be shut down by the Gator defense as soon as they reached field goal range. Brent Cimaglia made one of them, but missed another as the first half ended to leave the score at 6-3.
For awhile, it looked like that would be the final score. LaMical Perine busted off a 30 yard run, but fumbled the ball away at the end of it. Tennessee drove down to the shadow of the Florida end zone, only to watch Duke Dawson pick off Quinten Dormady at the goal line. More punts then filled the air. Tennessee switched from Cimaglia to senior Aaron Medley as their kicker, but he too missed a medium range field goal. 15 minutes later, it remained 6-3 Florida. And it seemed like that would be the final score.
But then Florida’s CJ Henderson grabbed a deflected pass from Dormady, and took it 16 yards to the house. That made the score 13-3 Florida with 14:23 showing on the clock, and given the Vols’ woes in the red zone and in the kicking game, it seemed as if the game was over. And it seemed as if Florida had put the cork in the bottle when freshman running back Malik Davis broke off a 74 yard touchdown run- the first offensive touchdown of the year- on the Gators’ next drive to make the score 19-3 with the extra point pending.
But then replay showed that Davis had lost control of the ball at the one yard line, and because it then bounded through the back of the end zone, the play was called a touchback. Tennessee then showed the most life it had all day, suddenly breaking Florida’s bend-but-don’t-break defense with a five play, 80 yard drive that ended with a 34 yard John Kelly touchdown run. And it seemed as though Tennessee was going to make a game of it.
But then Kelly’s idiotic decision to mock Florida’s Gator Chomp (really, this guy earned the status of one of the dumbest players in college football for this) after the touchdown spawned a 15 yard penalty for taunting. The short kickoff gave Tyrie Cleveland the chance at a return, and he broke off a 47 yard return to put the ball in Tennessee territory. Florida finally did get that elusive first offensive touchdown on a short pass to Brandon Powell, and the ensuing extra point made it 20-10 Gators with 5:13 remaining. And again, it seemed as though the game was over.
But then Dormady hit Kelly for a big play on a screen pass and then a bomb to tight end Ethan Wolfe, to lead the Vols 75 yards back to the end zone. A mere 30 seconds later, and Tennessee had counteracted Florida’s touchdown with one of its own. And it seemed as though Florida was going to have to put together a drive to run out the clock to secure the win.
But then Franks threw an ill advised high fastball that got deflected and then picked by Tennessee’s Rashaan Gaulden 40 yards away from the end zone. The Vols promptly drove down inside the Gators’ ten. Florida jumped into the neutral zone, but the noise of the Gator crowd then caused Tennessee to commit back to back false starts, driving them backwards. And it seemed as though Tennessee was going to be forced to kick a field goal when Kelly was stopped for a short gain on the first down play with 1:10 to go.
But then Jachai Polite was whistled for a facemask on the play. First down Tennessee. And by now, it seemed a certainty that Tennessee was going to score the game winning touchdown.
But then three incomplete passes forced Tennessee to kick a field goal with :50 to go. Medley made this one to tie the game. Florida then played its final possession extremely conservatively, with a short dump off to C’yontai Lewis, a scramble by Franks and a short run for a first down by Thompson. And it seemed as though the Gators and Vols were going to overtime.
But then Franks rolled. Franks planted. Franks squared. Franks drew back his arm. Franks launched. Franks followed through. Franks watched.
And then Cleveland ran. Cleveland ran. Cleveland ran, ran, ran. Cleveland beat Micah Abernathy. Cleveland ran some more. Cleveland located the ball. Cleveland slid. Cleveland opened his arms. Cleveland welcomed the ball, the touchdown, the win, and the spot in Gator lore into his arms.
And then the Swamp exploded in celebration.
Make no mistake. Florida still has plenty of work to do. Even with that walk off 63 yard touchdown pass, Tennessee outgained Florida 442 to 380. Say what you want about the Georgia Tech triple option, but the Gators needed that final play just to finish with half of the total yards the Yellow Jackets finished with against the Vols two weeks ago. The Gators’ defense, which had bent but seldom broken in the first seven quarters of the season, suddenly broke down multiple times in the fourth quarter for 75 and 80 yard touchdown drives on two and five plays, respectively. In short, Florida is not winning too many more games if they continue to play the way they played Saturday against Tennessee. And I’m positive that the coaches and players know it, too.
In short, Florida very easily could have lost this game, and let’s take a moment to consider just how devastating a loss would have been. Starting 0-2 would have put this team in the unenviable position of having to win every single game remaining on its schedule, up through the potential SEC Championship Game appearance, for the season to not be considered a failure. It would have been an absolute catastrophe to lose the home opener, with several dozen recruits in attendance mind you, given the annual gauntlet of SEC opponents plus FSU this team has to continue to brave.
That’s just the briefest, most tip-of-the-iceberg explanation of the cataclysmic consequences the Gators avoided with that last ditch bomb. But while it’s crucial to remember that the Gators nearly put themselves in that position with the way they played for most of the day, it’s of paramount importance to remember that Florida won.
This could be the catalyst, the springboard, and the origin of a truly special year. Improvements need to be made on both sides of the ball for that to happen, yes. But because that play happened, we now get to look forward to making those adjustments, and seeing what’s still to come with the overwhelming majority of the season still to come.