Another homecoming headache nearly wrecked a storybook season, but the No. 11 Florida Gators are going back to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game after sneaking past Vanderbilt 9-7 on a hot afternoon in The Swamp.
Maligned kicker Austin Hardin drilled a go-ahead, 43-yard field goal with 2:22 remaining in the fourth quarter, helping UF clinch the Eastern Division for the first time since 2009.
Afterward, first-year coach Jim McElwain could only shake his head and smile, joking he hoped his personal state trooper Calvin Long wouldn’t “arrest” him for such an ugly victory.
“Let’s face it, we stole one,” McElwain said, as UF won for the first time 47 years scoring fewer than 10 points. “Calvin is probably going to arrest me on the way out the door. I don’t blame him. It ain’t like I’m real excited about the performance.”
Wearing new sporty white helmets, Florida’s offense looked a lot like it did during the dog days of the Will Muschamp era: terrible.
The Gators (8-1, 6-1, No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings) gained just 258 total yards, had four turnovers and were completely dominated up front by the Commodores (3-6, 1-4).
They had minus-18 yards in the third quarter, and quarterback Treon Harris completed just 12-of-24 passes.
“Obviously, we’ve got a long ways to go on offense,” McElwain said. “They took it to us up front. They didn’t anything we didn’t see [on film], other than beat us to the punch. … I mean [Treon] didn’t have a chance back there. But you know what? What was the final? 9-7? Who won? OK, great.”
Kelvin Taylor scored a 3-yard touchdown to give the Gators an early lead, but new walk-on kicker and dental student Neal MacInness failed to drill the extra point.
It nearly proved quite costly.
Inside the final minute before halftime, Commodores tailback Ralph Webb, a hometown hero who starred at Gainesville High School, sprinted 74 yards untouched — snapping Vandy’s streak of 30 consecutive possession without a touchdown.
The Commodores hit their PAT and then tried to hang on for dear life.
They almost did.
Outside of Webb’s dash, UF’s defense smothered Vandy, limiting the Commodores to a paltry 1.67 yards per play. The Gators’ defensive line provided relentless pressure, as Alex McCalister, Jon Bullard & Co. combined for five sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
But Florida’s defense and special teams didn’t score for the first time in a month, and that was problematic. UF’s offense continuously squandered great field position, crossing midfield 10 times and scoring just the nine points.
The Gators fumbled twice (including a giveaway on a well-executed fake field goal), didn’t convert multiple fourth downs, and Harris tossed his first interception of the season.
They needed some help just to position Hardin for the game-winning kick, too. The Commodores shot themselves in the foot late, unleashing a ghastly series that went: penalty, timeout, penalty, no gain, shanked punt.
After the 12-yard punt, UF took over at the 45-yard line and gained just one first down before Hardin’s boot.
“You’ve got to win ugly sometimes,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “This is just another eye-opener for us.”
Even with a new coach, Florida’s recent homecoming horrors continued. The Gators needed a blocked punt returned for a touchdown to beat Louisiana-Lafayette in 2012 and then got smashed by Vandy and Missouri the past two seasons.
They escaped Saturday thanks to a suffocating defense, Vandy’s late implosion and a career 48 percent kicker nailing a clutch kick.
“When you’re on a championship run. Let’s call it what it is, we’re on a championship run, sometimes there’s games like this,” McElwain said. “And champions figure out ways to win them. You know what, these guys are the SEC East champs.
“They figured out a way to win. I can’t tell you how proud I am of those players.”