"We were going to go for the touchdown there (on fourth down) before we were backed up with the penalty," Johnson said. "When it was fourth-and-12, we had to go for the field goal, and then it was blocked."
When the Gators marched 79 yards for a touchdown, this one was officially in the loss column for the Commodores. Vanderbilt lost 34-17 before 32,716 at Dudley Field, falling to 2-7 on the season before heading to Kentucky next week. The Gators improved to 5-4 as Zook bids farewell.
"I think it is just a case of us being unsuccessful in stopping them in the second half," Johnson said. "They made us miss and they were completing passes."
Vanderbilt battled for nearly the entire day without starting quarterback Jay Cutler, who went down with an ankle injury in the first quarter. But the Commodores jumped out to a 17-7 lead and appeared to have the Gators on the run before the Florida offensive machine kicked into gear. Florida finished with 500 yards of total offense and did not send the punter onto the field all day. The Gators had 10 possessions that resulted in six scores and four turnovers, battering the Commodores defense through the air (307 yards) and on the ground (193).
"Sometimes when offensives spread us out, we have a hard time matching up athletically," Johnson said. "We come in there to play the run and they throw the pass. You go out there to cover the pass and they hand to (Ciatrick) Fason and he's hard to tackle."
Steven Bright completed 12 of 23 passes for 118 yards in relief of Cutler, and Norval McKenzie picked up 69 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown. But Vanderbilt's offense, which produced a respectable 372 yards on the day, was shut out in the second half. It marked the eighth game this season Vanderbilt has failed to score in the fourth quarter.
"When you get down inside the 20, it is always difficult to score points," Bright said. "We were moving the ball well. We just didn't make the plays we needed to make them."
The main question in this game was whether either team would be motivated. The thinking on the Florida side, with Zook living out his final days and the team drained from an emotional effort at The Cocktail Party against Georgia, was that the Gators would not bring much gusto to Vanderbilt Stadium.
On the Vanderbilt side, with a losing record secured and nothing but SEC heavyweights left save for Kentucky, things were not looking much brigher. But perhaps the Commodores could muster some fight on Homecoming/Reunion Weekend, and if they did, the Gators just might not be up for a slugfest.
Early on, the Commodores did come out firing. The opening kickoff was blasted out to the 40-yard line by Kwane Doster, and things continued from there. Vanderbilt drove with precision to the Florida 21-yard line, before two incompletions and a sack forced a 45-yard goal attempt into a stiff wind that was short. The sack proved pivotal in more ways than one, as Cutler sprained his right ankle and was lost for the afternoon.
"It would have been nice to have Jay in there with his experience," Johnson said. "But that's not why we lost the game."
Vanderbilt was the sharper team in the first 30 minutes, as it forced four Florida turnovers and emerged at halftime with a 17-14 lead. Bill Alford picked off Leak in the second quarter, and Dominique Morris, Moses Osemwegie and Kelechi Ohanaja all recovered fumbles in the first half.
Both Vanderbilt touchdowns came on extraordinary plays. Linebacker Kevin Joyce sacked Leak in the end zone, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Osemwegie. That play gave Vanderbilt a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
After a Florida touchdown, Vanderbilt took advantage of another Florida miscue. Morris recovered a Florida fumble at the Gators 40, and Vanderbilt drove in for another touchdown. Norval McKenzie covered the final 19 yards when he ran into the center of the line, bounced outside and outraced the Florida defense to the end zone. It was reminiscent of a Jason Dunnavant touchdown against Florida in the 1996 game won by Florida 28-21.
McKenzie's touchdown, his first of the year, gave Vanderbilt a 17-7 lead with 8:10 to play in the second quarter.
Florida responded and scored just seconds before halftime. Leak capped a 52-yard drive by scrambling into the end zone from two yards out with 10 seconds left. The play pulled the Gators within 17-14 at halftime.
Bill Trocchi is online editor for Athlon Sports.