For the first seven quarters of this season, the Florida offense’s desperate search to find the end zone had been futile. Zero touchdowns.
Well, in the irony of all ironies, when the Gators really weren’t looking for the end zone late Saturday afternoon, they miraculously found it.
It will go down in history as a Hail Mary. But that’s not what it actually was. That was not the intent.
In a game that was tied 20-20 and appeared headed for overtime, UF quarterback Feleipe Franks broke the huddle with only nine seconds remaining looking for 30 yards — 30 precious yards that would put Eddy Pineiro within range for a possible game-winning field goal.
“What was that range? You were about to find out,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.
But as Franks rolled right and out of the pocket, he glimpsed to his left and saw sophomore wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland racing behind the Tennessee secondary. Franks planted his foot and launched a perfect strike to Cleveland, who cradled the ball in his arms as he fell about five yards into the end zone.
In one of the greatest game-ending plays in Florida football history, the 63-yard TD pass from Franks to Cleveland with no time left on the clock gave the Gators a stunning 26-20 victory over the Vols in the SEC opener for both teams before 87,736 mostly insane fans in The Swamp.
The sudden game winner was followed by a big celebration on the field by the Gators, who stormed off the bench after Cleveland got up with the ball — and the victory — in his hands.
“I think everybody found out (Franks) can throw the ball a long ways in the air,” McElwain said. “I just enjoyed watching the guys (celebrate). I just enjoyed seeing their excitement. I know how hard they have worked and what they’ve put into it. For me, it was just seeing the people and the organization enjoying the moment.
“I wouldn’t say (it was great) for the program. What it’s great for, it’s great for these players and it’s great for the people, the city of Gainesville and all the Florida fans. That’s what it’s great for.”
On the last play, the Gators were just looking for a field goal that would win the game. As Franks ran out of the pocket to his right, he saw some open field and thought about tucking it and running. But he quickly shifted gears when he saw Cleveland breaking free behind UT cornerback Micah Abernathy on a chase post pattern down the left-center of the field.
“I was actually thinking about running it,” Franks said. “It was kind of like an-in-the-moment thing. I set my feet and put it up for him.”
And Cleveland came down with it.
“I saw the corner press and I just ran fast,” Cleveland said. “I wanted that ball and I got it.”
Franks, who threw the strike, still seemed stunned by the unlikely ending to Saturday’s game.
“It’s going to be that little moment (when it sinks in),” Franks said. “It’s kind of hard to take it all in right now. It’s going to sink in at one point and I’m going to sit back and realize what just happened.
“Growing up, as a kid you always think about plays like that happening in your life. When you come out here and it actually happens, it’s kind of indescribable. There are no other words I can put into what just happened.”
Cleveland said he and Franks usually spend time after practice working on deep passes. The play that was called in the final seconds was one the Gators practice on every Friday during their walk through. It’s the same play that scored the winning touchdown against the Vols two years ago on a Will Grier-to-Antonio Callaway TD.
“It paid off,” Cleveland said. “Growing up, I always dreamed of making that game-winning touchdown. To make it come true is indescribable. I really can’t describe it right now. I’m trying to soak it all in.”
Before the amazing finish, it appeared the Gators were heading into overtime after Tennessee (2-1, 0-1 SEC) rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the game 20-20 on 28-yard touchdown pass from Quinten Dormady to tight end Ethan Wolf and a 27-yard field goal by Aaron Medley with only 50 seconds remaining.
The Gators (1-1, 1-0) were in a position to lose the game in regulation following a Franks interception, but the worn-out defense forced three consecutive incompletions after the Vols had a first-and-goal on the 9-yard line.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, the Gators ended their offensive TD drought with a 5-yard scoring pass from Franks to Brandon Powell that put the Gators up 20-10. Earlier in the quarter, true freshman cornerback C.J. Henderson returned an interception 16 yards for a touchdown, his second pick-six in as many games.
In the end, most of all that stuff that happened earlier in the fourth quarter was forgotten with that one remarkable touchdown strike with no time left on the clock.
“I was getting ready for the overtime and then we saw the scramble, so I looked up at the video screen,” sophomore linebacker David Reese said. “I could see the ball out of the corner of my eye. I stood up and the next thing you know, Tyrie comes down with the football and we end up winning the game.”
For the Vols, it was another crushing loss to the Gators in The Swamp. The one two years ago was painful. This one was off the charts.
1. In game that appeared headed for overtime, Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks rolled right out of the pocket and found Tyrie Cleveland open behind the Tennessee secondary for a 63-yard TD on the game’s final play.
2. Franks, who threw his first career touchdown pass earlier in the fourth quarter to Brandon Powell, finished the game with 18 completions in 28 attempts for 212 yards.
3. A weary Florida defense weathered a second-half onslaught from UT tailback John Kelly, who finished the game with 141 yards rushing and a touchdown and six receptions for 96 yards.
— Robbie Andreu
“Any time you lose a tough game like this, you’re going to be mad,” senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. “This just shows the character of our team. Everybody is pretty upset about the loss and they should be. We just can’t let it carry on to next week. And we won’t let that happen.”
Who: No. 20 Florida (1-1, 1-0 SEC) vs. Kentucky (3-0, 1-0)
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850