Vanderbilt went into the vaunted Swamp, came out minus-four in the turnover department, and still took the No. 13 Gators to double-overtime. It was one of the guttiest team performances in recent memory and the most extraordinary game quarterback Jay Cutler has played in his four years at Vanderbilt. He threw for 361 yards, four touchdowns and drove his team to three fourth-quarter touchdowns and one in overtime. (Cutler has directed game-winning or game-tying drives in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against Wake Forest, Arkansas, South Carolina and Florida this season.)
Unfortunately, the topic of conversation at Monday's press conference centered around an official's call that prevented Vanderbilt from trying a daring two-point conversion with 54 seconds left. The Commodores trailed 35-34 following Earl Bennett's six-yard touchdown pass, and coach Bobby Johnson was planning on going for a two-point conversion.
"We had a pretty tired defense at that point and (starting receiver) Erik Davis was hurt," Johnson said of his decision. "We had a very good play we worked on all week and we knew what we were going to run."
But before the Commodores got the opportunity, Bennett was flagged for excessive celebration after he dropped the ball, did a brief dance, and then was mobbed by his teammates. The call was roundly criticized by ESPN commentators Sean McDonough and Mike Gottfried and later by Rece Davis on ESPN.com. Davis wrote the officials "made an egregious mistake by penalizing Vanderbilt late in the Florida game, and it might have cost the Commodores a chance to go for the win in regulation. A referee must recognize the context of the game and tell the kid to stop and go to the sideline. After a TD cuts the lead to one with under a minute to play, only blatant taunting should be flagged."
Johnson was equally puzzled by the call.
"I've quit trying to interpret that rule because I've seen a lot of things before that were excessive and weren't called," Johnson said. "I obviously do not know (the rule) … We had no warning (about excessive celebration). They did not tell me we had been doing that before and to watch it. I don't know why that particular incident was penalized."
There were still 54 seconds remaining in the game, and Florida kicker Chris Hetland has missed just one field goal all season (in the first half against Vanderbilt). Even if Vanderbilt had converted its two-point conversion, there was no guarantee the defense would have held Florida out of field goal range in the remaining time. But the Commodores certainly wanted that chance.
"I'm disappointed because I felt like we were going to have a good chance to go for two and be successful and try to win the football game and we didn't get that opportunity," Johnson said.
The excessive celebration call was not the first heated argument Johnson had with the officials in the game's final moments. Following a Vanderbilt touchdown with 2:17 to play that brought VU to within 35-28, the Commodores lined up for an onside kick. Florida had its regular return team on the field, then quickly tried to substitute its onside kick team before calling timeout.
Johnson was furious on the sidelines that the officials did not allow his team to run its onside kick when it was lined up and ready to do so.
"We were ready to kick and they had their regular return team on the field," Johnson said. "They were allowed to substitute their whole team before we were allowed to kick. That's why I was upset."
The good news that came out of Gainesville was the revival of the offense, which had taken a midseason nose dive by scoring just 38 points against MTSU, LSU and Georgia. The Dores scored 70 against South Carolina and Florida and have risen to fourth in the SEC in total offense, including No. 1 in passing offense. On the flip side, the defense is ranked 11th in the SEC in total yards and 10th in points allowed.
"We ran the ball well at times," Johnson said. "Obviously, we threw the ball extremely well. If we can continue to do that and get a little more balance, I'll be very, very pleased."
With Tennessee on a four-game losing streak and Kentucky sitting at 2-6 overall, the Commodores still have reasonable hope at winning both remaining games and reaching their first bowl game since 1982. The first step in that process begins Saturday at home against Kentucky, when Cutler will play his final game at Vanderbilt Stadium.
"I don't think we'll have a letdown," Johnson said. "I think we'll be focused."