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No. 24 Gators beat No. 23 Tennessee on final-play 63-yard TD pass

Florida's Kadarius Toney (17) slips past Tennessee defensive back Emmanuel Moseley for yardage after a reception during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) GVP107
Florida's Kadarius Toney (17) slips past Tennessee defensive back Emmanuel Moseley for yardage after a reception during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) GVP107
Published Sep. 17, 2017

GAINESVILLE — Forget 50 minutes of awful football.

No. 24 Florida delivered one of the most improbable plays in school history Saturday— a 63-yard bomb from quarterback Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland, who caught it in the end zone as time expired to give the Gators a 26-20 win over No. 23 Tennessee.

"I was just shocked that it all happened," Cleveland said.

His shock is understandable, given everything that preceded it.

There were off-the-field problems. The aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which canceled last week's game and affected the families of 60 team members. The ongoing drama with nine indefinitely suspended players.

There were on-the-field problems — mostly a messy offense that couldn't even be fixed when it faced an awful Volunteers defense.

Tennessee (2-1, 0-1 SEC) entered Saturday giving up an average of 591 offensive yards against its past five Division I-A opponents. UF (1-1, 1-0) totaled 309 through the first 55 minutes, against a lineup without safeties Evan Berry and Todd Kelly.

The Gators still haven't rushed for a score in eight games, and they went more than eight quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown. Coach Jim McElwain said his players simply weren't winning their one-on-one matchups.

Then, as a potential tailspin loomed, something changed.

"They've been through some things, but you know what?" McElwain said. "They just keep going."

It started with a seven-play, 44-yard drive that ended with Franks' first career touchdown pass, a 5-yarder to Brandon Powell that extended UF's lead to 20-10 with 5:13 left. Given the circumstances — Florida ran only 15 plays in its previous five drives — it might have been as impressive as any of the McElwain era.

Until the last one.

After allowing two scores in four minutes, UF took over at its 25 with 50 seconds left and the score tied at 20. McElwain wanted to drive to around the Tennessee 35, just inside the field-goal range of kicker Eddy Pineiro.

At their 37 with nine seconds left, the Gators called Train Right Open, Big Ben In — similar to Antonio Callaway's 63-yard catch and run on fourth and 14 in the final minute that beat the Vols at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium two years ago (Train Right Jill, Big Ben In).

Cleveland lined up left, ready to run a go route.

"I told Feleipe, 'Give me a chance,' " Cleveland said.

It wasn't quite that easy.

The pocket began to crack. Defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo nearly tripped up Franks, forcing him to roll right. Franks was thinking about just running with it when out of the corner of his eye he saw Cleveland streaking.

"It was kind of an in-the-moment thing," Franks said of his only pass attempt of 10 yards or more that he completed in the game.

Cleveland was open because he correctly read Tennessee's tight coverage. He dipped his route inside to shed the press, then blazed ahead of safety Micah Abernathy with the speed that made him one of 2016's top receiver prospects.

All that was left was for Franks to set his feet and fire it from the UF 36. It's the kind of deep ball Franks and Cleveland practice all the time, on a play they practice every Friday.

"You never know when we're going to need it," Cleveland said.

Although Cleveland had a step on two defenders, Franks called the bomb a 50-50 ball — the kind of one-on-one matchup UF failed to win two weeks ago against Michigan.

This time, finally, it worked. Cleveland corralled it in the end zone as time expired.

His teammates dogpiled on him. The announced crowd of 87,736 went berserk. And after a troublesome start to McElwain's third season, the Gators finally had something to celebrate.

"I think," McElwain said, "this was a pretty good remedy for that."