GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jim McElwain said it was the same play call Florida dialed up on its game-winning touchdown two years ago here against Tennessee, the 63-yard pass from Will Grier to Antonio Callaway with 1 minute, 26 seconds remaining.
“Train ride open, Big Ben in. Same exact play,” he said.
Center T.J. McCoy later said the play call was “Sugar.” Details. Doesn’t matter. This touchdown may have been the the exact same distance, but it was bigger than the play two years ago — might as well have two names.
After No. 24 Florida had let a 10-point fourth quarter lead disappear Saturday night, the final three points from No. 23 Tennessee coming after a late Feleipe Franks interception, the Gators went through what looked like a disjointed sequence before snapping the ball with 9 seconds left.
Franks uncorked a beautiful pass down the middle of the field that landed in Tyrie Cleveland’s hands in the end zone for a 63-yard game-winning touchdown as time expired.
Before the scoreboard could change to reflect Florida’s 26-20 win over the rival Vols, The Swamp had erupted in celebration. In the stands, on the field. Everywhere.
RELATED: Gators didn’t solve all their woes, but they got the win they needed | Defense carries Gators through first three quarters vs. Tennessee | Florida hoping ‘human joystick’ Kadarius Toney becomes a big part of the offense | SEC Country’s top photos from Florida’s last-second win over Tennessee | Jim McElwain provides injury update after the game
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) September 16, 2017
“It’s kind of hard to take it all in right now, but like I said before, it’s going to sink in at one point and then I’m going to sit back and realize what just happened,” Franks said later. “Growing up, as a kid like you said, you always think about plays like that happening in your life. And then when you come out here and it actually happens, then it’s kind of undescribable.”
Said Cleveland: “It was crazy. Just making that play for the team and the coaches, I was just shocked that it all happened.”
Imagine how Tennessee felt.
Same outcome as the Vols’ last trip to The Swamp, only even more dramatic this time.
And, man, did Florida need this.
After two weeks of hearing about how bad the offense is following a dismal debut against Michigan, after a month since the start of the suspensions that continue to hang over this team, after leading almost the entire way Saturday until suddenly letting Tennessee tie it up, the alternative outcome would have been crushing.
After all that, the Gators needed this win in the worst way. And got it in the best way — a potentially momentum-charging victory that could spring this group and this program forward.
So how did it happen?
There was panic in the stands as Florida let significant time tick off the clock without calling one of its two remaining timeouts after Franks was tackled short of the first down marker. The Gators finally got the ball snapped, Mark Thompson rushed 3 yards for the first down and the clock stopped with 9 seconds remaining.
“I thought Feleipe got the first down where it was marked and I wanted to save (a timeout), in case we needed to get the field goal on, on an alert down situation,” McElwain explained. “I was kind of surprised there we didn’t get a measure. Whatever. But the way it was, I think everybody found out that Feleipe can throw the ball a long ways in the air.”
Franks said he wasn’t initially thinking about heaving a Hail Mary down field. He knew Florida needed at least 25 yards for a chance at a game-winning field goal. He also knew he didn’t have much time to work with, though.
So he scrambled right, stopped to set his feet with a defender barreling in on him and chucked the ball more than 60 yards in the air right on target.
“Actually, I didn’t go into that play looking to throw a deep ball. I knew the kick line was around the 35 to the 38, so obviously with 9 seconds left it would be kind of hard to get that far downfield to get out of bounds and stuff like that. So in the back of my head I’m thinking, get the ball into the receivers’ hands to let them go make plays,” Franks said.
“When I was rolling out I was actually thinking about running it, and then through the corner of my eye I just see Tyrie just running through the back on a little chase post back that way. Corner of my eye. It was kind of like an in the moment thing.”
Cleveland said his responsibility was a go route from the start and he told Franks to look his way.
“Before the play, I told Feleipe, ‘Give me a chance.’ I looked at him and he hiked the ball, the corner was pressed so I inside release(d) and just ran fast,” Cleveland said.
Somehow, even with Tennessee knowing the one thing it couldn’t do was give up a long touchdown, Cleveland got behind the defense with a step on Vols defensive back Micah Abernathy.
The throw was perfect. The catch, also perfect. Right along with the ending to a wild night for the Gators.
“Oh, I knew I had it,” Cleveland said. “I knew I was going to come down with it. I made it my business to come down with it.”
Franks was asked what he remembered thinking as the ball was sailing through the air, his first signature moment as a Gator taking shape as all the orange-and-blue-clad fans in The Swamp held their collective breath.
“To be honest with you, it’s kind of hard to remember because I was so excited through the whole thing,” he said.
And yet, this one will also be impossible to forget.