A day that had the potential to turn dark and depressing for Florida ended up being maybe the brightest and most encouraging of the young season for the Gators on Saturday in The Swamp.
“Guys, that was fun,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “It was one of those games that our guys prepared well for. Our guys knew what they needed to do and they went out and did it.”
It didn’t look like any fun was ahead late in the first half, when the Gators lost starting quarterback Luke Del Rio to a season-ending broken collarbone and were trailing Vanderbilt 17-14.
But led by redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks and a suddenly strong running game that pounded out five rushing touchdowns, three by Lamical Perine and two by true freshman Malik Davis, the Gators turned their day around in a big way with a 38-24 win over the Commodores to move to 3-0 in SEC play (3-1 overall).
Maybe the most encouraging thing for the Gators is they actually won this game with offense. It was the offense carrying the defense for a change.
And the offense took control of the game when it looked like control could be lost because of Del Rio’s injury.
But Franks, benched a week earlier in the second half at Kentucky, came in prepared and led the Gators to a late 21-yard field goal by Eddy Pineiro in the second quarter to tie the game 17-17 heading into the half.
The Gators carried that momentum into the second half, where they took the lead, 31-17, with two long touchdown drives — one culminating with a one-yard run by Davis, the other on a one-yard run by Perine in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
“Feleipe came in and took care of business,” McElwain said. “He handled it well. Obviously, that drive right before half was huge. He did a good job.”
Franks completed 10 of 14 passes for 185 yards and had the offense in a nice, positive rhythm throughout most of the second half that saw the Gators control the ball with those long scoring drives.
“He was ready,” sophomore wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “He had great composure, great energy. He just came in and stepped up.”
Earlier in the week, it looked like Franks might be spending a lot of time on the sideline after losing the starting role to Del Rio. But that all changed with one hit on Del Rio late in the second quarter.
Franks kept his head in the game during practice all week, then was prepared when he got the sudden call to duty.
“The other 10 guys did a great job keeping me confident, pushing the tempo, little things like that,” Franks said. “Luke made sure that I didn’t get down on myself and made sure I still prepared like I’m the starter, because it only takes that one play.
“You never want that to happen in a game, but it’s football and it did. Luke kept me up throughout the whole week to prepare for a situation like he had at Kentucky.”
Once he got on the field Saturday, Franks’ biggest support came from his offensive line and the running backs, who generated a strong, steady running game that took some of the pressure off Franks.
In his first collegiate start, Davis ran for 124 yards and the two scores. Perine rushed for 58 yards and the three touchdowns. The Gators rushed for 218 yards.
“I thought our guys ran hard,” McElwain said. “The guys up front are starting to get it. There at the end, I thought we wore on (the Vanderbilt defense) pretty good.
“There have been bits and pieces (in previous games). As you guys have been up there watching, it seems like all of a sudden something will go haywire and we never can recover. I thought we recovered today. We didn’t let the negatives affect us.
“They got a little confidence the week before in that fourth quarter and kind of decided that, ‘Yes, we can.’ It was good to see that.”
The Gators sealed the victory with a 39-yard TD run by Davis on a fourth-and-one play with 1:42 remaining.
McElwain called that a teachable moment for the true freshman, because he should have gone down after making the first down so the Gators could run out the remaining clock.
“We’ll get that handled,” McElwain.
For the offense, which rolled up 467 yards, it was a feel-good day for a change. Not, so much for the defense, though. The Gators were shredded by Vanderbilt’s passing attack for much of the afternoon.
Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns, his third going to Nathan Marcus from seven yards out to make it a one-score game (31-24) with 3:14 still left to play.
“It wasn’t our best defensive game by any stretch of the imagination. Let’s call it the way it is,” McElwain said. “And, yet, the other side of the ball picked them up a little bit. That’s the way it should be. It’s a team game.”
It also wasn’t a good day for Del Rio, who missed the second half of last season with an injured knee and two injured shoulders and made it all the way back to be named the starter earlier this week. Now, his season is done.
“It’s hard,” McElwain said. “Just feel horrible for him. And, yet, the guys rallied behind Feleipe and that’s what we’ll do moving forward.”
For the Commodores, they were much more competitive than a week ago in a 59-0 loss to Alabama. But it still goes down as a second consecutive loss after opening the season 3-0.
“Let’s credit Florida,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “This was a game of attrition. This game was won and lost in the trenches.”
Who: LSU vs. Florida
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850