GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Coach Jim McElwain had just watched Tennessee erase a 10-point lead in the final 5 minutes when Feleipe Franks launched the final pass of the game high into the sky.
“I was kind of surprised there,” McElwain said “The way it was, I think everybody found out that they can throw the ball a long ways in the air.”
Franks’ 63-yard touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland lifted the Gators to a 26-20 victory over the Vols Saturday afternoon at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, their seventh straight home win in the series.
It was the only pass the No. 24-ranked Gators (1-1) completed that traveled more than 10 yards in the air, according to ESPN stats, but that will serve as little consolation for No. 23-ranked Tennessee (2-1).
The Vols correctly anticipated Florida planned to throw an intermediate pass with hopes of setting up a field goal, and lined up in their 4-2-5 nickel defense with two safeties deep.
The original play broke down, however, and Franks scrambled away from Tennessee pressure and Cleveland adjusted his route, running to daylight in the end zone.
Franks expertly looked off his receiver, helping to create separation in the process and leading to the game-winning play.
“I didn’t go into that play looking to throw the deep ball,” said Franks, who was 18-of-28 passing for 212 yards with 2 TDs and 1 interception. “I knew the kicking line was about the 35 to the 38-yard line, but with nine seconds, it would be hard to get that far and also get out of bounds.
“I was just thinking about getting the ball into a receiver’s hands.”
Cleveland, who led Florida with five catches for 93 yards, said he knew he was going to make the play.
“I knew I had it, (and) I knew I was going to come down with it. I made it my business to come down with it.”
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said it was a case where the Vols’ secondary let the receiver get behind them.
“We have to stay as deep as the deepest (receiver),” Jones said. “We allowed the quarterback to flush the pocket, and he got up and made a great play.
“You have to stay the deepest of the deepest and knock the ball down.”
Tennessee appeared to have set themselves up for an overtime period when it rallied from 20-10 down with under five minutes left to tie the game at 20-20 with 50 seconds remaining.
“Their guys (Tennessee) came back and our guys answered,” McElwain said. “Our defense came up big.”
There was plenty of chirping and chippy play on the field, but Florida safety Chauncey Gardner said the Gators got the best of both.
“We knew they would be talking, but at the end of the day the best man won,” Gardner said. “The best man won on offense and defense.
“We are going back to Atlanta. People say it was a miracle play, but we do things like this. We’re the Florida Gators, this is what we do.”