What we learned: Florida walks off with Hail Mary TD to beat Tennessee in The Swamp

By Adam Silverstein
September 16, 2017
What we learned: Florida walks off with Hail Mary TD to beat Tennessee in The Swamp

Image Credit: Twitter / GatorsFB

Have you caught your breath yet? No. 24 Florida Gators football pulled off as thrilling as one could demand on Saturday afternoon, earning a 26-20 walk-off win over the No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers with a touchdown that will be remembered for decades to come.

OnlyGators.com breaks down Florida’s win below.

It was over when: Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks, who mismanaged Florida’s clock on the game’s final possession and had thrown an interception on his prior series, found sophomore wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland for a 63-yard Hail Mary touchdown as time expired at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. The touchdown pass was Franks’ second in the quarter as he completed 18-of-28 passes for 212 yards and an interception. He had not scored a touchdown in six prior quarters, and Florida stopped its offensive touchdown streak at eight quarters dating back to the 2017 Outback Bowl.

Exceptional effort: It was not a banner day for the Gators’ defense, which missed dozens of tackles and allowed itself to be gashed by the Vols offense as led by running back John Kelly, who totaled 237 yards and a touchdown on the afternoon, averaging 9.5 yards per touch. However, Florida junior quarterback Duke Dawson was tremendous for most of the game, breaking up two passes, catching an interception at the goal line and finishing with six tackles, second-most on the team. Sophomore linebacker David Reese also had a pick in the game, and freshman CB C.J. Henderson registered his second pick six of the season, becoming the first player to do so in back-to-back games since 1996.

Disaster strikes: For as exciting as the finish was for the Gators, they could not get out of their own way, shooting themselves in the foot on numerous occasions. All three running backs made massive errors in the game with sophomore Lamichal Perine and senior Mark Thompson both completely whiffing in pass protection on plays that led to drive-stalling sacks. Freshman Malik Davis showed off his explosiveness with a tremendous 74-yard run that would have gone for a touchdown had he not been stripped at the 1-yard line. Florida also committed numerous inopportune penalties and the defense was absolutely gashed late in the game missing so many tackles that the coaching staff should have teaching film for weeks.

Odds and ends: Florida improved to 27-20 all-time against Tennessee with wins in 12 of their last 13 meetings … the Gators are 25-7 against the Vols since 1976 and 14-5 in The Swamp … Florida has won 28 straight home openers, and McElwain improved to 12-1 at home … that was McElwain’s fourth win in 11 tries against ranked opponents… UT outgained UF in both phases of the offensive attack … the Gators converted 50 percent of their third downs … Florida converted seven points off three turnovers, while Tennessee managed 10 on their three takeaways … UF also beat UT with a 63-yard fourth-quarter touchdown in 2015 … with the win, the Gators avoided an 0-2 start for the first time since 1971 and a loss at home to the Vols for the first time since 2003

What it means: While it was certainly an exciting moment for Florida fans, there is really not much to say coming out of this game. The Gators’ offense looked improved during a scripted opening series, but it appeared lost otherwise. Franks, though he did make some plays, also threw up a couple ducks and locked onto his No. 1 option too often. There were also the bevy of aforementioned miscues, proving that junior RB Jordan Scarlett is badly needed in this offense. Florida did see a couple of other players flash (see below) but that’s not enough for the program to suddenly think it has turned a corner.

By the quarter

First: Florida opened with a 15-play drive stalled by two penalties after it entered the red zone for the first time this season, resulting in a short field goal. Tennessee responded with a couple third-down conversions of its own, but sophomore linebacker David Reese picked a ball off in UF territory to change possession.

Second: Freshman wide receiver Kadarius Toney flashed with a 19-yard gain — aided by a couple nice jukes — midway through the quarter, though another blown pass protection by a running back resulted in a 15-yard sack of Franks and a second Gators field goal. The Vols got those three points back with a 51-yard kick and put themselves in scoring position for another one before halftime but missed a 46-yard attempt. Toney had two receptions for 27 yards in the period, both impressive.

Third: A fumble by Perine began a long Tennessee drive that looked stalled until it converted a 3rd and 19 with a 22-yard gain down to UF’s goal line. However, Dawson picked off a third-down pass to end a mind-boggling offensive series for UT, saving a score. The Vols found their way back down into scoring position but missed a 51-yard field goal.

Fourth: The Gators started the game’s final quarter with a pick six from freshman cornerback C.J. Henderson, his second in as many career games and Florida’s third of the season. Tennessee once again had a chance to respond but missed a 44-yard field goal, its third failure of the day. On the ensuing possession, Davis took a hand-off 74 yards for a touchdown only to be stripped at the 1-yard line and turn the ball over to the Vols for a touchback. Tennessee immediately responded with a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that included four rushes of 16 yards or more and more than a dozen missed tackles.

Following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by UT, Florida was able to achieve great field position as Cleveland returned the ensuing kickoff 46 yards to the Tennessee 44. Franks then engineered a seven-play scoring drive as redshirt senior WR Brandon Powell found the end zone as the first Gators player to score an offensive touchdown in 2017. The score ended an offensive touchdown drought of more than eight quarters dating back to the third quarter of the 2017 Outback Bowl.

This time the Vols were able to immediately answer back as the hosts gave up 52 yards on a screen to John Kelly followed by a 28-yard touchdown pass on a two-play, 75-yard scoring drive to cut Tennessee’s deficit back down to three. The Vols were then able to tie the game moments later after Franks threw a tipped interception and the visitors connected on a 27-yard field goal with 50 seconds remaining. In a game that looked headed to overtime, Florida showed some mind-numbing decisions when it came to clock management on its final possession but still wound up netting a win via Franks’ Hail Mary touchdown.


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