A football fashionista would give the Gators a big fat F but aesthetics aside, Florida beat Vanderbilt, 9-7, and that’s all that matters because it clinched the SEC East championship for the first time since 2009.
It was close because the Gators turned the ball over four times. It was close because the Florida offensive line spent a good portion of the day dazed and confused. It was close because Treon Harris has one of those days when he struggled to read Vanderbilt’s cleverly disguised defense. The Gators managed only 258 total yards and 201 of them came in the first half.
The game was also close because Florida’s defense was relentless, covering all but one of the numerous mistakes made by the UF offense. The UF defense held Vanderbilt to 175 total yards, only 11 first downs, 5-18 conversions on third down and just 3-14 passing for 30 yards.
So, chalk it up as an ugly win, but all wins look the same in the won-lost column and this one was a win.
“When you’re on a championship run, sometimes there’s games like this and champions figure out ways to win them,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “These guys are the SEC East champs. They figured out a way to win.”
When the Gators were facing fourth-and-1 at the Vandy 25 with less than three minutes to go it was one of those figure out a way moments. McElwain’s options were to go for it on fourth down, let untested Neil MacInnes try his first collegiate field goal or send in Austin Hardin. Since the Gators were 0-3 on fourth down already and MacInnes had pulled an extra point wide left, the no-brainer was go to with Hardin, whose only action all day was a couple of kickoffs. Last week against Georgia, Hardin had both a field goal and an extra point blocked.
McElwain rolled the dice with Hardin and it paid off. His 43-yard field goal kicked from the left hash into the north end zone split the uprights with 2:22 left in the game and gave the Gators the game-winning margin.
The way the Gators started the game made it seem this was going to be a long, long game for Vanderbilt. Brandon Powell ran the opening kickoff back 71 yards to the Vandy 23 and Jordan Scarlett bolted 20 yards around the right side on the first offensive play. On second-and-goal, it looked as if the Gators had a touchdown on a 5-yard Treon Harris to Powell pass, but the replay booth overturned the call. Rather than send MacInnes into the game on fourth down, McElwain called a jet sweep for Powell who was stopped at the Vandy 2.
The Gators made amends for their missteps in the red zone on their next possession, parlaying the good field position provided by a 27-yard punt return by Antonio Callaway into great starting field position at the Vandy 41. Harris made one play with his arm – a 25-yard connection to DeAndre Goolsy – and one with his legs, a 10-yard scramble to the Vandy 3. From there, Kelvin Taylor went around the left side for his 11th TD of the season. MacInnes came on to to try the first extra point of his career and pulled it right.
On Florida’s third possession, the Gators moved from their own 15 to the Vanderbilt 33 behind a couple of Harris to Robinson completions (9 and 36 yards) but on fourth-and-3, McElwain sent in the field goal unit. The Gators executed the perfect fake, a shovel pass from holder Johnny Townsend to CeCe Jefferson, but Jefferson fumbled (questionable call that there wasn’t enough video evidence to overturn) at the Vandy 19 to kill the drive.
The Gators were driving again on their next possession, which began at the Vandy 45. On third-and-13, Harris scrambled to his left and had first down yardage, but the ball was knocked out of his hands and Vanderbilt recovered at its own 19.
Late in the second quarter, the Gators elected to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the Vandy 43 but Harris threw his first interception of the season. On
Vanderbilt’s first play, Ralph Webb sprinted 74 yards for a touchdown and Openshaw kicked the extra point with 48 seconds to go in the half to give Vandy a 7-6 lead.
After a third quarter in which the Gators totaled -18 yards, the Gators got their first drive of the second half going. Passes of 18 yards to Robinson and 16 yards to Powell sandwiched a 13-yard Harris scramble. With first down at the Vandy 19, Harris completed a short pass to Robinson, who was hit by a gang of Commodores at the 15. The ball popped out of his hands and the Commodores recovered at their own 12.
Florida’s offensive shenanigans couldn’t overshadow a magnificent defensive effort by the Gators. Other than the long run by Webb, the Commodores made it across midfield only once in the game. The Commodores ran for 145 yards, but minus the 74-yard rum by Webb, the Commodores ran 47 times for a net 71 yards. The Gators sacked Vandy QB Johnny McCrary 5 times for 27 yards in losses and completions of only 6, 3 and 21 yards in 14 attempts.
Florida travels to South Carolina next week for the last SEC game of the season then returns home for non-conference games against FAU and FSU to close out the season. Vanderbilt (3-6, 1-4 SEC) has three SEC games remaining. The Commodores play host to Kentucky next week.
FLORIDA 6, VANDERBILT 0; 6:16
After squandering a touchdown opportunity on their first possession, the Gators got into the end zone on the second when Kelvin Taylor followed a block by Bryan Cox Jr. and scored on a 3-yard dash around the left side of the Vandy defense with 6:16 left in the first quarter. The 6-play, 41-yard scoring drive was set up by a 27-yard punt return by Antonio Callaway that gave the Gators great starting field position. The TD was set up by a 25-yard Treon Harris to DeAndre Goolsby pass and a 10-yard Harris scramble to 3 on a 3rd-and-7 from the Vandy 13. The first ever PAT attempt by walk-on Neil MacInnes was pulled wide left.
VANDERBILT 7, FLORIDA 6; 0:48
Florida’s third turnover of the half came back to bite the Gators. On the first play after Harris threw an interception, Gainesville native Ralph Webb blew through a big hole on the left side and sprinted 74 yards untouched for a touchdown. Tommy Openshaw’s extra point gave the Commodores a 7-6 lead with only 48 seconds left in the half.
FLORIDA 9, VANDERBILT 7; 2:22
Rather than trust the game to MacInnes, McElwain called on Austin Hardin to go into the game cold to attempt the game-winning field goal. Hardin, who has been battling injury all season, hadn’t kicked a field goal longer than 37 yards all season, but this 43-yard attempt went straight down the middle to give the Gators the win that clinched the SEC East championship. The scoring drive got started when Vandy’s Tommy Openshaw shanked a punt that gave the Gators possession on the Vandy 45. Passes of 8 and 7 yards from Harris to Demarcus Robinson helped UF get the ball to the Vandy 25 where on fourth down McElwain elected to go with Hardin, who delivered when the Gators needed it the most.