After a 71-yard kickoff return to open the game, the Gators were facing a fourth-and-goal situation at the Vanderbilt five yards line less than two minutes into the game. Jim McElwain could have sent walk-on kicker Neil MacInnes to attempt the chip shot field goal, but he elected to go for it from the five-yard line.
The play ended with Brandon Powell being tackled at the three-yard line, and the Gators gave the ball back to Vanderbilt. McElwain also called for a fake field goal in the second quarter, and the Gators picked up a first down before CeCe Jefferson fumbled the ball and the Commodores recovered. Florida also went for it on fourth down just before halftime, but quarterback Treon Harris threw an interception on the play.
As the offense continued to struggle later in the game, passing on field goals early in the first half looked like it could be a mistake. But McElwain was anything but apologetic for it after the game. The first-year coach said he trusted his defense on the first drive, knowing that if his offense didn’t score, the Commodores would have to go 95+ yards to find the end zone.
“I’m a guy who believes in going for it,” McElwain said. “Obviously, it backfired. It didn’t work. Works sometimes. When it works, it’s a great call. Sometimes it doesn’t. When it’s a game of field position, you play the odds. That’s what you do as a coach. I expect our guys to make it on fourth down. We didn’t. That’s something we’ll continue to get better at and work at. I’ll have faith they’ll make it and do it.”
McElwain also said his kicking situation had nothing to do with the decision. The Florida kickers have struggled all season, but even if they had an All-American kicker waiting to put three points on the board, McElwain said he would still lean towards going for it on fourth down.
“I’m going to go for it when they’re that tight,” McElwain said. “That’s what you do. If you want me to all of a sudden become passive, then I guess I can become passive. I’m not going to do that. We’re going to press the metal down and go score. We’ll do what we have to do to be successful -- and that’s the message our guys need to know.”
ROBINSON BALL SECURITY
The Florida coaches have been on receiver Demarcus Robinson about his ball security issues since the spring. After the catch, Robinson routinely runs with the football in one hand and tries to make defenders miss. In the fourth quarter on Saturday, he had a bad fumble that could have cost Florida the game. He wasn’t carrying the ball with one hand, but he does need to protect the football better going forward.
“There’s no excuse for the fumble,” McElwain said. “Now, it’s his choice to carry the ball that way. He gives us a chance because he’s a good player, but he’s also got to understand that as you go through life, there’s about doing things right to maybe help the people around you. It ain’t always about you. He’s a good player. He cares. Hopefully, he’s learned.”
SPECIAL TEAMS STEP UP
All of the special teams attention went to Austin Hardin for his game winning, 43-yard field goal, but the entire special teams unit had a strong day.
Florida’s best offensive weapon on Saturday came in the return game. Powell’s 71-yard kickoff return was easily that unit’s most explosive play of the season. Antonio Callaway continued to be a playmaker in the punt return game, returning seven punts for a total of 110 yards with a long of 28 yards.
Punter Johnny Townsend continued a strong season, averaging 44.4 yards on five punts while dropping three inside the Vanderbilt 20-yard line with only one touchback.
“That’s something that I think is underrated. Our punt team and kickoff cover team always puts us in a good situation,” Florida defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard said. “I tell them guys to keep doing it. That’s helping us when they’re standing inside the 20. I like my odds of a team moving a football all the way down the field and scoring. So they’re doing an excellent job and they keep it up. That’s a big, big thing for us to help us out.”