No. 24 Florida beats No. 23 Tennessee on Hail Mary pass
Florida’s offense continues to struggle to find the end zone on a consistent basis, but at least it’s got the Hail Mary figured out.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks connected with sophomore Tyrie Cleveland on a 63-yard touchdown catch as time expired to give the 24th-ranked Gators a 26-20 win over No. 23 Tennessee on Saturday afternoon at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla.
“It obviously was not pretty, but sometimes as you go through this business it’s about figuring out a way to win,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “And our guys figured out a way to win.”
The Gators (1-1, 1-0 SEC) led 20-10 with 5:13 left after Brandon Powell’s 5-yard TD catch, their first offensive touchdown of the season. Prior to that, their scoring had all been via field goals and their defense, including a 16-yard interception return for a touchdown by freshman cornerback C.J. Henderson early in the fourth quarter that put Florida up 13-3.
No. 23 Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) rallied from 10 points down twice, tying it at 20 on a 27-yard Aaron Medley field goal with 50 seconds left.
Florida looked to be playing for overtime when it didn’t use a timeout on third-and-inches at its own 34-yard line. Mark Thompson converted with a 3-yard run with nine seconds left, setting up Franks and Cleveland for their heroics.
The sophomore quarterback rolled out to buy time for his receivers to get deep, making sure not to cross the line of scrimmage, then heaved the ball more than 65 yards in the air to Cleveland as he slid to the turf to complete the 63-yard pass play.
“You grow up waiting for moments like that to happen in your life,” Franks told CBS Sports’ Allie LaForce on the field afterward.
Franks threw for 212 yards on 18-of-28 passing with two TDs, but his interception with 3:57 left set up Tennessee’s game-tying score.
The teams combined for 37 fourth-quarter points after three periods dominated by defense and field goals.
Tennessee junior John Kelly had a 39-yard scoring run as part of a career-high 141-yard effort, and Ethan Wolfe hauled in a 28-yard TD pass from junior Quinten Dormady one play after Kelly broke off a 52-yard run. Kelly had 237 all-purpose yards, including six catches for 96 yards.
“He is the heart and soul of this football team,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said of Kelly. “I can’t say enough about the way he played.”
Dormady threw for 259 yards on 21-of-39 passing but he was intercepted three times, including by Florida senior Duke Dawson at the goal line midway through the third quarter.
Florida had 189 of its 380 yards of offense in the fourth quarter, including 72 on a run by freshman running back Malik Davis. That play ended with Davis fumbling out of the back of the end zone just before reaching the goal line when Tennessee senior defensive back Justin Martin punched it out. The resulting touchback ended up being a 14-point swing after Kelly’s ensuing 34-yard TD run pulled the Vols within 13-10.
“It was a remarkable play by Justin,” Jones said. “He gave us a chance to win the game.”
It didn’t look like Florida would struggle to score at the outset, as it drove 75 yards on the game’s opening possession to reach the red zone for the first time this season. But the Gators had to settle for a 27-yard field goal from junior Eddy Pineiro.
Pineiro added a 41-yarder with 8:11 left before halftime.
Tennessee’s lone score of the first half came on a 51-yard field goal from freshman Brent Cimaglia, the first points of his career, but he missed a 47-yard attempt just before halftime that preserved Florida’s 6-3 lead.
Cimaglia missed again from 51 with 3:13 left in the third quarter, squandering great field position set up by a 29-yard punt return from sophomore Marquez Callaway, but that was only Tennessee’s second-worst offensive effort of that period. The Vols had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line after a 22-yard catch by Callaway on third-and-19, then the ineptitude began.
Tennessee threw on four straight plays while also getting flagged for a false start, with Dormady getting intercepted by Dawson at the goal line on third-and-goal from the 6. Dawson had dropped an interception on the first play of that stand before teammate Chauncey Gardner was called for taunting, giving the Vols an extra down.
NOTES: Florida once again played shorthanded due to the suspension of nine players prior to the start of the season, a group that includes WR Antonio Callaway and RB Jordan Scarlett. ... Tennessee PK Brent Cimaglia’s 51-yard field goal in the second quarter was the longest for Tennessee since 2013. ... Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, for whom the Gators’ field is named, was presented with his College Football Hall of Fame plaque prior to the game. ... Tennessee missed three field goals in a game for the first time since a 19-14 loss at Alabama on Oct. 24, 2015.