All this added up in Vanderbilt's favor, but like so many games in the past where the Commodores seemed to have everything they needed, they came up short. Once again, Vandy came close but once again, no cigar.
This 25-19 Florida victory that kept the Gators in the driver's seat of the Southeastern Conference East Division race was a heartbreaker for the Commodores, but it was typical of this very strange run the Gators have made to make it to an 8-1 record and UF's first SEC East title since 2000. Florida was outgained by 61 yards and the Gators did their part to advance Vanderbilt's cause with three turnovers and six penalties, but in the end, none of that mattered because the only important stat in football is points for and points against. You get more points for than you have points against, you win. The Gators won and close didn't count for anything.
Florida didn't have a stranglehold on mistakes, however. The Gators countered just enough of their own mistakes to manufacture 11 points. They got a touchdown after a blocked punt by Ryan Smith, a two-point conversion throw from Butch Rowley to Tate Casey after a botched extra point snap and a field goal after a 35-yard punt return by Brandon James. Those 11 points were the difference in a ball game that the Gators had to hold on for dear life to win. Vanderbilt had two fourth quarter touchdown drives and yet another drive was snuffed at the Florida 10 on a fourth down run that came up inches short.
Even a failed onside kick with 2:30 remaining in the game wasn't the final dagger to the heart that killed the Commodores' chance to spring the upset. It took a 12-yard Tim Tebow run for a first down at the 50 that ended all hope. Vandy had no more time outs left and all the Gators had to do was take a knee to finish it off.
For the second straight week, Florida's win could be better described as a great escape.
"I think that winning is all that matters," said Coach Urban Meyer, who stated the obvious when he said the Gators have more work to do.
While there is no question that the Gators need to do a better job of avoiding turnovers and penalties, you can't fault a Florida punt block/return team that played lights out. If you need a difference for the game, that's it.
The Gator defense did a three and out on Vandy's first possession, setting up an all-out rush from the left side. One Utah transfer broke free to get the block and Florida's other Utah transfer, Butch Rowley, got the recovery at the Commodore six. Florida ran a quarterback draw on second down from the four to get the touchdown and that set up the game's most bizarre play.
Rowley, who holds on extra points and field goals, was looking back at kicker Chris Hetland when James Smith snapped the ball off of Rowley's chest. Instead of panicking, Rowley picked the ball up, rolled right and threw a downright ugly pass that Casey caught for the two-point conversion and an 8-0 Florida lead with 12:21 remaining in the first quarter.
That two-point conversion proved critical when Vandy finally got on the scoreboard. The Commodores drove 90 yards in seven plays, scoring on a 13-yard run by Cassen Jackson-Garrison with 6:17 left in the first quarter. Vandy decided to go for two to tie the game but Nickson's pass to Bennett fell incomplete.
The Florida punt team came up big once again on the ensuing possession. Stopped at midfield when Baker dropped a third down pass, Eric Wilbur dropped a punt that bounced dead at the Vandy six. The Gator defense did another three and out and that allowed Florida to get the ball back with a short field to work with.
This was Dallas Baker's chance to redeem himself. After dropping that first quarter pass, he went to the coaches on the sidelines to ask for another opportunity.
"It was disappointing," said Baker. "I asked coach on the sideline to give me one more chance to allow me to make a play. I was really disappointed because it [dropped pass] killed the drive."
He made three catches on this 49-yard scoring drive including a 23-yarder to get it started and a 19-yarder that erased a 13-yard loss on a bad option pitch by Leak. That third down catch got Florida a first down at the Vandy 16 and one play later, he caught a 14-yarder for a touchdown with 12:04 left in the half. Hetland's kick made it 15-6.
For Baker, this was his best game in weeks. Held to four catches in the last two games, he caught seven on this day for 135 yards, but he still wasn't happy with the effort.
"I didn't play great today," said Baker. "I missed that ball in the first quarter and I also missed a couple of blocks."
The had two other second quarter scoring chances but both times they failed to come away with the points that could have ended the suspense of this game early. The Gators got another punt block in the second quarter when Reggie Nelson roared untouched up the middle to literally take the ball off Upson's foot. Jermaine McCollum recovered at the Vandy 28, but Florida didn't convert the big break into points. On first down, Leak had hit pass batted into the air by Curtis Gatewood and Ray Brown came down with it, the first of his three interceptions.
Leak threw a second interception on Florida's next possession with 51 seconds remaining in the first half. The Gators took over after the defense made a huge stop of a Vandy drive when Smith stepped in front of Earl Bennett to intercept Chris Nickson's pass at the UF 21. Florida went into its two-minute drill and ran it to near perfection. Leak was completed five straight passes, four for 41 yards to Bubba Caldwell and one for 26 yards to Baker, to move the ball to the Vandy 19. Sensing the chance to take the momentum into the halftime locker, the Gators went for the end zone on second down, but Leak went to the well with Caldwell one time too many. He threw into triple coverage in the middle of the field and Vandy's Jonathon Goff came away with an interception at the four that kept the halftime lead at a very respectable 15-6.
Florida ended a two-game second half touchdown drought in the third quarter when the Gators retaliated after a missed 47-yard Vandy field goal by Bryan Hahfeldt. It only took three plays and a pass interference call for the Gators to go 69 yards for the score. Leak and Baker connected for 29 yards and after the pass interference call moved the ball to the Vandy 26, DeShawn Wynn ripped off a 22-yard run to the four.
Florida went five wide on the goal line, the exact same thing they did on their first possession of the game. Florida ran the exact same play, too, the quarterback draw with Leak going in with 8:12 left in the third quarter. Hetland's kick made it 22-6.
Florida's punt block/return team came up big again at the end of the third quarter when James returned a 50-yard Upson punt 35 yards to the Vandy 36.
"I was just trying to make a big play and I almost busted one," said James, who has had two punt returns for touchdowns called back due to penalties. "I've got a lot of confidence in the guys I'm out there with and I think we're going to take one all the way soon."
Meyer was well aware that his punt team was the difference maker. They have the ability to alter field position either with returns or rushing the punter.
"If we didn't have those two darn penalties our guy would probably be leading the country in punt returns," said Meyer. "Then you really have the ability to pressure people. I really like that team. I like our personnel on it. It's probably the best I've been around."
Following the long James punt return, Tebow came on to run a full series at quarterback. Allowed to throw the ball, Tebow took a couple of downfield shots, missing an open Riley Cooper on a deep pattern and then throwing a bit too high for Dallas Baker in the left corner of the end zone. He did, however, rip off a 25-yard run and that set up a field goal attempt by Hetland, who had to earn his job in a kicking contest during the week in practice. He was 1-7 coming into the game, but he drilled this 29-yarder and that increased Florida's lead to 25-6.
"I love Chris Hetland," said Meyer, who said that Hetland will have to earn his job in practice again this week. "He is not a typical kicker. He's a competitive guy."
The Gators were once again on the verge of winning by a blowout, but once again, Florida couldn't handle the prosperity. The Gators gave up a touchdown on a drive that was aided by a 15-yard personal foul and a pass interference penalty. They had a chance to run some clock but Leak overshot a wide open Baker downfield and Vandy intercepted. That drive, at least, was stopped when the Gators stopped Jackson-Garrison at the 10.
Florida had a chance to recover a fumbled punt with 4:02 remaining in the game but the ball somehow eluded three Gators and wound up in the hands of Vandy's Jared Fagan. Nickson connected with Bennett, who caught 13 passes for 157 yards on the day, for a 36-yard touchdown with 2:30 remaining, raising hope for an upset among the Vandy faithful, who made up only about half of this crowd of 38,134. But Baker recovered the onside kick and Tebow ran for a first down that put an end to Vandy's dream.
The close call left Meyer smiling but fully understanding he had escaped with a razor-thin margin of victory.
"Championship teams take a big swing at you in the third and fourth quarters and they knock you down," he said.
There was no knockdown on this day. There wasn't even a standing eight count. Yet, somehow, Florida survived and walked away with the first UF football championship in years. That's all that mattered.