Before a nervous crowd of 91,040 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Vanderbilt battled the heavily favored Gators tooth and nail for three hours and 45 minutes. Only after Reggie Lewis intercepted a Jay Cutler pass on Vanderbilt's possession in the final overtime could the partisan Gator fans finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Vanderbilt, which lost its fifth straight game after opening the season with four wins, fell to 4-5, 2-4 in the SEC. The Commodores still have a chance at a winning season and bowl eligibility, but their backs are now to the proverbial wall. To attain six wins, they must now win both of their remaining games vs. Kentucky and Tennessee.
"They never gave up," said head coach Bobby Johnson of his team's gallant effort in such a hostile environment. "I was proud of our comeback to tie it up. I wish for them so much that we could have won that football game, because I think they deserved it."
Florida (7-2, 5-2 SEC) kept alive its hopes for a share of an SEC Eastern Division title. If the Gators beat South Carolina next week, and Georgia loses to either Auburn or Kentucky, Florida can advance to the SEC Championship Game by virtue of its win over the Bulldogs.
Twice in the second half Vanderbilt fell behind by 14 points, at 28-14 and 35-21. But the Commodores, which have specialized this season in rallying from behind in the fourth quarter, cut the lead to 35-28 with 2:17 left on a 2-yard slant pass from Jay Cutler to George Smith. After recovering the ensuing onsides kick, Cutler drove Vandy 53 yards for a game-tying score with 54 seconds left.
On that score, Earl Bennett was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after making the touchdown catch. Vanderbilt would have gone for a 2-point conversion to win the game, Johnson said later, but the 15-yard penalty pushed the Commodores back to the 18-yard line. Bryant Hahnfeldt's 35-yard extra point kick tied the score at 35-35 and forced the game into overtime.
Florida won the toss in overtime and elected to give Vandy the ball first. With both teams' defenses tiring, both teams scored touchdowns relatively easily in the first OT period. Vanderbilt's came on an 8-yard run off tackle by Jeff Jennings, and Florida would tie the game at 42-42 with a 10-yard touchdown pass caught by Chad Jackson.
It took Florida only two plays to go up 49-42 in the second overtime-- and only one more play to spell doom for the Commodores. Lewis' pick came on the Commodores' first play of the second overtime period.
Cutler, who had one of his best nights ever as a collegian, eluded Florida's frequent blitzes and finished 28-of-42 for 361 yards and 4 touchdowns. In the process, he broke Greg Zolman's school record for career passing yardage. His performance will likely be remembered, however, for the game-ending play.
"Our team fought hard in that fourth quarter," said Cutler. "They put the ball in my hands, and I let them down at the end with that last interception.
"This team has got a lot of heart in it. We believe in one another. We made plays in the fourth quarter, and that's what you have to do to be a good team. It's just unfortunate that it had to end like this."
Both offenses came out strong in the first quarter. The Commodores drove 70 yards in 6 plays on their first possession, with Cutler finding Earl Bennett for a beautifully executed 14-yard scoring throw. But the Gators would answer with a time-consuming, 13-play drive, with Leak scoring on a 2-yard sneak. The first quarter ended in a 7-7 deadlock.
Florida jumped on top 14-7 early in the second quarter on a 9-yard shuffle pass from Leak to freshman Kestahn Moore. But Vanderbilt would answer again when Cutler located Marlon White for a 16-yard pass that set up a 1-yard Cassen Jackson-Garrison touchdown run.
With the first-half clock running down, Leak maneuvered Florida into position for a short field goal with 0:03 left. But the Commodores dodged a huge bullet when Florida's Chris Hetland, who had not missed a field goal all year, sent the 26-yard attempt wide right. With a half still to play, the score remained knotted 14-14.
Vanderbilt had come into the game having lost only two fumbles all season. But a pair of fumbles early in the third quarter would quickly put Vandy in a two-touchdown hole.
Florida recovered a Vandy bobbled snap at the Vandy 14 and went on top 21-14 on a reverse run by Chad Jackson. On Vandy's next possession Earl Bennett coughed up the football after a reception; Leak directed UF on a short 45-yard drive, and scored on a 1-yard rollout for a 28-14 Gator advantage.
That set the stage for Vandy's fourth-quarter rally. Going almost exclusively to the air, Cutler drove the Commodores 68 yards in 5 plays, finding Erik Davis for a 15-yard touchdown. Once again Florida would answer with an 8-minute, 38-second, 80-yard touchdown drive that put them up 35-21 with 4:11 left. With the game seemingly out of reach, many Gator fans began exiting the stadium.
But the Commodores refused to die. Vandy drove 68 yards to cut it to 35-28 with 2:17 left-- then recovered their own onsides kick and tied the score 35-35 with 0:54 remaining. Florida attempted to get into field goal range as the final seconds ticked down, but the Commodores forced a punt and ran out the clock.
In a game where both offenses shined, Florida outgained Vanderbilt 448 yards to 419, and dominated time of possession 34:41 to 25:12. In the individual battle between two of the SEC's top quarterbacks, Cutler had 359 yards of total offense and threw for a career high 4 touchdowns, while Leak had 324 yards and accounted for 5 touchdowns (3 passing, 2 rushing).
The Commodores return home to face Kentucky next Saturday for their final home game of the season. Tickets still remain for the contest. The Wildcats (2-6, 1-4 SEC) fell to No. 17 Auburn 49-27 at home Saturday.
Florida's starting tailback DeShawn Wynn suffered an injury in the first quarter and did not return. Vanderbilt receiver Erik Davis, who had 8 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown, left the game in the fourth quarter with an unspecified leg injury and did not return.
Vanderbilt failed in its attempt to beat a ranked team for the first time since 1992 and to win in Gainesville for the first time since 1945.