It was all so quiet. It was an afternoon of studying at the library, or getting stood up at the coffee shop, or watching a really bad play. Until suddenly it wasn’t.
Despite a punt-heavy first three quarters leaden with miscues, the fourth proved to be the difference Saturday in Florida’s 26-20 win over Tennessee in its impromptu home opener.
Two weeks removed from a season-opening loss to Michigan in which its offense was inept, it took until that fourth quarter for UF’s offense to produce. And when it did, it did so in the most dramatic way possible.
The change of pace started right from the beginning of the final frame, when UF cornerback CJ Henderson grabbed an interception and returned it for a touchdown.
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From there, the game took an unexpected turn from defense-heavy to offense-happy.
No. 23 Tennessee followed the score with its own touchdown. Florida answered with one of its own — a quick pass from quarterback Feleipe Franks to wideout Brandon Powell that gave No. 24 UF its first offensive touchdown of the season.
Tennessee responded with a toss from quarterback Quinten Dormandy to tight end Ethan Wolf.
The back-and-forth streak ended when Franks threw an interception with 3:57 left in the game. Tennessee capitalized and tied the score at 20 with 50 seconds left.
UF (1-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) got the ball back, and with nine seconds left, Franks dropped back and evaded pressure. He stepped up in the right side of the pocket and scrambled toward the line of scrimmage. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a streaking Tyrie Cleveland and heaved it.
The play wasn’t designed to be a deep pass, but instinct took over. Cleveland said they practice this play every day, and before the play, he told Franks to give him a chance.
He grabbed the ball about 70 yards later with no time left just in front of the south goal post. Game over.
“I think everybody found out Feleipe can throw the ball a long way in the air,” McElwain said before addressing the lasting impact of the win.
“I’ve got some burned images in my mind,” he said, “that I’m gonna carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Franks felt the same way.
“It was a really fun way to end the game,” he said. “I’d say it’s one of the funnest I’ve ever been in.”
Before that, though, the story of the game was one of missed opportunities.
After driving to the Tennessee 16 to open the game, Florida’s offense looked poised to score its first touchdown of 2017.
Back-to-back delay of game and false start penalties ensured they would settle for a field goal instead.
On Florida’s first drive of the second half, running back Lamical Perine took a handoff up the middle and turned it into a 21-yard gain.
He fumbled at the end of the run, and Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) recovered.
When Florida’s offense finally broke through on what appeared to be a 74-yard touchdown run by freshman Malik Davis, upon review it was ruled that Davis fumbled at the 2-yard line. Tennessee took over on a touchback.
But Tennessee missed its share of opportunities as well. This was especially true for kicker Brent Cimaglia, who booted one field goal attempt wide left and another wide right. If he would have made them, UT would’ve taken a 9-6 lead. He also missed a field-goal attempt after UF’s first touchdown.
UF amassed 380 total yards to UT’s 442, while Franks finished 18-of-28 passing for 212 yards. Davis led the Gators in rushing with 94 yards, and Cleveland led the receivers with 93 yards.
Most of Cleveland’s yardage came on the final play — officially a 67-yarder — and upon landing in the end zone, he cradled the ball as his teammates swarmed him. Despite the shock reverberating up and down the stands, he said the catch was never in doubt.
“I knew I had it,” Cleveland said. “I knew I was gonna come down with it. I made it my business to come down with it.”
As a result, after enduring a canceled tuneup game a week ago against Northern Colorado and a decisive season-opening loss to Michigan, he and his teammates finally had something to celebrate.
“I love those guys. They’ve been through some things,” McElwain said. “And you know what? They just keep going.”