ORLANDO — Dan Mullen doesn’t praise his quarterbacks often, so his comments Monday were noteworthy.
Florida’s second-year coach said once-embattled, now-entrenched quarterback Feleipe Franks improved more this offseason than he did all of last season.
It took 51 minutes Saturday night, but a packed house at Camping World Stadium and a national ESPN audience finally got to see what he meant. Briefly.
Franks rebounded from a disastrous interception with a daring fourth-quarter drive that led No. 8 UF to a 24-20 win over Miami. The victory was UF’s second in the last eight games in the series and spoiled the head coaching debut of the Hurricanes’ Manny Diaz against Mullen, his former Mississippi State boss.
It was also the perfect encapsulation of Franks — good, bad and ugly. A head-scratching decision. A costly interception. And, finally, a gorgeous bomb that sparked the game-winning touchdown for UF (1-0).
“He’s not a guy that’s going to flinch,” receiver Josh Hammond said.
The early star in front of an announced crowd of 66,543 wasn’t Franks. It was the jewelry of Miami (0-1).
First it was the Hurricanes’ turnover chain.
The latest incarnation of Diaz’s gaudy creation made its first appearance in the second quarter when Franks and Lamical Perine botched a handoff. Instead of driving for a 14-3 lead, they had to watch former Freedom High standout Scott Patchan celebrating with 2,000 sapphires around his neck.
The chain returned on the next drive when Jesuit High alumnus Malik Davis couldn’t handle Franks’ pitch.
Then it was Miami’s new bejeweled touchdown rings, which DeeJay Dallas got to slip on after ripping off a 50-yard fourth-quarter run that gave the ’Canes a 20-17 lead.
The turnover chain came out again when Franks sailed a pass off Freddie Swain’s fingers and into the hands of Amari Carter. It was Franks’ first interception in 157 passes — the second-longest streak without a pick in UF history.
Miami missed a field goal, so the damage was limited. But given how fragile Franks’ psyche has been at times, it still could have been catastrophic.
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Not this time.
“Adversity’s the game of football,” Franks said. “It happens all the time. I think we did a great job responding.”
And no one responded better than Franks.
On the very next throw, Franks told Hammond to run deep. They hoped the offensive line finally held. Both worked, and Franks fired a 65-yard strike to Hammond.
“He came back firing,” Mullen said.
Only because Mullen let him.
Mullen said he wasn’t sure whether he would have put Franks in a position to make a play like the bomb to Hammond a year ago. This season, Mullen has no doubts.
“I’m putting the game in his hands,” Mullen said.
And Franks went out and won it.
He completed his next pass, a quick screen to Perine. And the one after that, a short swing the other way to Kyle Pitts. Finally, Franks capitalized with a bruising 3-yard run up the middle and into the end zone.
Four plays, 80 yards, all Franks for the lead.
Because it’s Franks, there was more to the story. He was hit on his next throw and didn’t see Romeo Finley lurking for an interception. You can look at that as a sign of growth because Mullen again trusted him to throw the ball with the lead and 4:30 left. Or you can view it as another hard-to-believe interception that would have been devastating against a better team.
It didn’t matter in the end, because Miami bailed him out. The ’Canes had back-to-back 15-yard penalties to kill a potential scoring drive before it could truly begin.
“This just shows we're not ready to be a big time team yet,” Diaz said.
Florida might not be either, if it plays the way it did in the final sloppy minutes with a pair of pass interference penalties and an inability to corral loose balls.
Then there’s Franks.
His numbers weren’t great (17-of-27 passing for 254 yards). His two interceptions were bad and could have been worse. But he also made an NFL-caliber throw on the play of the night to set up the touchdown — his touchdown — that beat in-state rival Miami.
It’s all there for Franks. Good, bad and ugly.
And on Saturday night, triumphant.