GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain didn’t need any prompting, nor did he let the emotional high of the ending cloud his perspective.
“It obviously was not pretty, but sometimes as you go through this business it’s about figuring out a way to win,” he said.” And our guys figured out a way to win.”
That way was a 63-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland at the end of regulation to send the Gators to a 26-20 win over SEC rival Tennessee.
It came after Florida (1-1) had squandered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead.
McElwain was right. It wasn’t pretty in many ways, but given how important it was for the Gators to get a win Saturday — any way they could — we’ll grade on a curve this week.
Quarterback — B-
Before the final series, Feleipe Franks was 16-of-26 passing for 146 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. The pick had come on the previous series, giving Tennessee possession at the Gators’ 40-yard line to set up their eventual game-tying field goal.
More to the point, his second-half numbers before that final drive were 5 of 8 for 40 yards, 1 touchdown and the interception.
If Florida had lost, Franks would have been scrutinized this week. But that last pass, my goodness.
The poise and precision the redshirt freshman showed on the final play bumps his grade up significantly. He scrambled out of the pocket to his right, thought about running with it, had the presence of mind to notice Cleveland streaking down the middle of the field, stopped to set his feet and unfurled a perfect pass that traveled more than 60 yards in the air and right into Cleveland’s waiting hands.
It was a tremendous singular play that the Gators hope spurs his confidence moving forward.
Running backs — C
This grade could have been a lot higher, but two costly fumbles are hard to forget.
Let’s start with the positive. After looking dead and buried against Michigan two weeks ago, the running game came to life Saturday in The Swamp.
Freshman Malik Davis got 4 carries and turned them into 94 yards. He nearly had a 73-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter that likely would have put the game away as Florida would have gone up 20-3. Instead, he had it knocked out from behind just before he crossed the goal line and it tumbled out of the end zone for a deflating touchback.
Sophomore Lamical Perine had a nice day, too, if not for his fumble. He rushed 11 times for 55 yards and extended a few plays with his vision and toughness. But early in the third quarter, after a 21-yard burst up the middle, he coughed up the football to Tennessee at the Gators’ 49. Only an interception at the goal line prevented the Vols from turning that into valuable points.
Senior Mark Thompson, meanwhile, rushed for 30 yards on 7 carries.
Wide receivers/tight ends — B
Again, Tyrie Cleveland’s ability to somehow get behind the defense on that final play and haul in Feleipe Franks’ perfect pass elevates the entire perception here. And deservedly so.
Cleveland finished with 5 catches for 93 yards and that touchdown. Brandon Powell had a 22-yard gain on a screen pass early in the game and caught a 5-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
And then there was freshman Kadarius Toney. The hype is warranted.
McElwain referred to Toney after the game as a “human joystick” after he caught 4 passes for 40 yards. The only regret here is that he didn’t get more targets.
There were some positives from this group Saturday.
Offensive line — C
It wasn’t a great performance up front by any means, but it was better than what the unit showed against Michigan.
Florida allowed 2 sacks, one for a 15-yard loss early in the second quarter to stall a promising drive that had reached the Tennessee 25.
But it was a serviceable performance. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor had a pancake block on Brandon Powell’s 22-yard screen play, and the running game had enough to work with Saturday.
This is probably more in line with what to expect from the offensive line each week.
Defensive line — B+
Maybe this is generous for a game in which Tennessee totaled 183 rushing yards and 442 total yards while moving the ball when it needed to in the fourth quarter.
But there’s a lot to like with Florida’s defensive line.
Redshirt sophomore defensive end Jabari Zuniga (6 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hurries, a half sack) looks poised to deliver on the lofty expectations many had for him in the preseason. And sophomore defensive end Jachai Polite (5 tackles, 2 quarterback hurries) is an emerging star.
There were a number of highlights for the group Saturday, but the play that resonates most came late in the third quarter.
Tennessee QB Quinten Dormady had thrown incomplete on third-and-2 from the Florida 17, but the Vols were flagged for a holding penalty against defensive end Jordan Sherit. The Gators elected to take the penalty yards and replay third down to try to push the Vols out of field goal range. On the next snap, Zuniga and freshman defensive tackle Kyree Campbell smashed Dormady to the ground for a 6-yard sack and, sure enough, Tennessee missed a 51-yard field goal try.
The defensive line made its mark Saturday.
Linebackers — B-
If it’s not clear yet, I’m bullish on the play of Florida’s defense in general Saturday. The unit carried the Gators for three quarters and kept them in the game to that point.
Tennessee broke through offensively in the fourth quarter and running back John Kelly became a real problem for the Gators down the stretch, but for what was asked of the Florida defense Saturday, the unit largely delivered until simply wearing down late.
David Reese notched an interception and 7 tackles to lead the linebackers. Vosean Joseph added 6 tackles, and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon (2 tackles, 2 quarterback hurries) played an expanded role with Kylan Johnson out with an injury.
It wasn’t an exemplary performance from the linebackers, but for most of the game they made the plays they needed to make.
Defensive backs — A
Duke Dawson grabbed his second interception in as many games — creating a key turnover at the goal line to deny Tennessee some much-needed points — and freshman cornerback C.J. Henderson nabbed his second pick-6 in his second career game.
Beyond those obvious highlights, Florida’s young defensive backs showed continued growth. Freshman cornerback Marco Wilson had 7 tackles and 3 pass break-ups. He and Henderson are going to be a fun duo to watch at cornerback for years to come.
With Tennessee set up with first-and-goal from the Gators’ 9 on their final drive with a chance to take the lead, Wilson gave tight coverage on a second-down incompletion to Vols top receiver Marquez Callaway. Also, redshirt freshman C.J. McWilliams, stepping in for an injured Dawson, helped contribute to an incompletion the other way on third down. That stand forced the Vols to settle for a game-tying field goal and set up Florida’s game-winning touchdown.
Special teams — A
Nothing to fault here.
Eddy Pineiro was 2-for-2 on field goals, hitting from 27 and 41 yards, Johnny Townsend averaged 44.8 yards per punt and the return game showed some life.
Tyrie Cleveland’s 46-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter gave Florida possession at the Vols’ 44 and set up a 7-play touchdown drive that gave the Gators a 20-10 lead.
Coaching — C
The offense still has a ways to go and the clock management in the final series was befuddling, but defensive coordinator Randy Shannon deserves strong marks for what his young defenders showed for most of the game.
As for offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, it’s hard to give credit for a Hail Mary touchdown. He did do a better job of involving Florida’s young playmakers, namely Kadarius Toney, but it’s still not clear why Malik Davis got the fewest carries in the backfield while showing the most burst and ability.
To the clock management point, everybody in The Swamp seemed confused as Florida let valuable time tick off the clock in the final minute without using one of its two remaining timeouts before ultimately having Mark Thompson rush up the middle for a first down.
That stopped the clock with 9 seconds left and forced Feleipe Franks to heave it deep on the final play. It worked out, but had it not, there would be a lot of questions about why the Gators squandered so much time in such an important moment.