Florida came into its early Saturday game against Vanderbilt hoping to answer a slew of questions that surfaced following its loss to Tennessee.
Would the defense respond from its second-half meltdown?
Would backup quarterback Austin Appleby make strides in his second start?
Would the team respond with the grit and toughness it showed in its first three games of the season?
Those questions remain unanswered, even after No. 23 Florida defeated Vanderbilt 13-6 in front of an announced crowd of 30,565 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“A wise man once told me, no matter what, you even got to bring them ugly babies home from the hospital,” McElwain said after the game, Florida’s 25th win over Vanderbilt in the past 26 meetings. “And that was ugly.”
No, it wasn’t pretty, but somehow, someway, the Gators (4-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) made plays when they needed to against the Commodores.
After more than 20 minutes of scoreless action to open the game, UF sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett scored on a 4-yard run up the middle late in the second quarter to cap off a six-play, 53-yard drive. Two plays before the touchdown, the former St. Thomas Aquinas standout weaved and bobbed past Vanderbilt defenders before finding an opening on the right sideline for a season-long, 24-yard gain to put the Gators in the red zone.
“I feel like I’m having a pretty good year,” said Scarlett, who led Florida with 55 rushing yards on 12 carries and has a team-best 274 rushing yards and four touchdowns this season. “I’m having some tough physical runs.”
Kicker Eddy Pineiro, a former soccer star at Miami Sunset High, nailed both of his field-goal attempts from 42 and 26 yards to give the Gators the rest of their points.
Appleby had bright spots late in the game but finished with 144 yards on 19-of-28 passing. He botched a snap on the goal line with less than three minutes to play with Florida leading by seven to give Vanderbilt a chance to tie the score. But Vanderbilt’s drive stalled at midfield.
“A little bit of crowd noise [factored in],” Appleby said. “You know, we’ve just gotta do a better job of communicating it and securing the snap. The play can’t go without the snap. That’s my job to secure the snap.”
Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-2) scored on a pair of field goals in the second and third quarters, carving up the Florida defense at the beginning of the drives with a potent run game before stuttering at the end. Commodores running back Ralph Webb had a game-high 110 rushing yards on 24 carries.
The Gators defense gave up 265 yards of offense but made plays late in drives to keep the Commodores from scoring touchdowns. Jalen Tabor and Nick Washington each made interceptions. Tabor’s stopped Vanderbilt’s first drive that threatened to put up points. Washington’s sealed the game.
“Thank God we’ve got the best defense in the country to bail us out,” Appleby said, “and a win’s a win.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ With fifth-year senior Bryan Cox Jr. getting minimal playing time and injuries forcing Joey Ivie (hand) and Jordan Sherit (leg) to sit out, UF relied on younger players to step up on the defensive line against Vanderbilt. The Gators started redshirt freshman Khairi Clark as well as sophomores Keivonnis Davis and CeCe Jefferson, along with regular starter Caleb Brantley.
▪ Punter Johnny Townsend had one his best performance of the season. The redshirt junior averaged 51.9 yards per punt and had a career-long kick of 62 yards in the third quarter. Four of his seven punts pinned Vanderbilt inside its 10-yard line.
“The hidden yardage I think was in our favor this week,” McElwain said.
▪ Junior cornerback and former Fort Lauderdale University School standout Quincy Wilson recorded his first career sack in the second quarter.