In 9 seconds, Tyrie Cleveland changes trajectory of Gators' season
GAINESVILLE — Tyrie Cleveland didn’t want to leave the field.
The band had packed up, the CBS cameras were off, the fans were filing out into the revelry of the September night and his teammates were mostly gone, off to a relieved and exuberant locker room.
But Tyrie Cleveland stopped a moment, at the edge of the Gators’ tunnel in the south end zone, for one final look.
After he slipped behind the Tennessee secondary and snatched a 63-yard prayer out of the sticky Florida air for an unlikely Gators victory, answering the prayers of a program — and a state — desperate for something positive, who could blame him for wanting to linger?
Cleveland stayed after he had fallen to the ground in prayer, overcome with emotion. Cleveland stayed and joyfully took every selfie, slapped as many hands as possible, and then, as night fell on The Swamp and a UF official started to usher him toward the press area, he turned again, to take one last look at the end zone where he had rescued a season — and perhaps a coaching staff — from the abyss.
It was Tyrie Cleveland’s night.
Moments like Saturday are why Cleveland, a highly-touted 4-star receiver from Houston, flipped from his hometown school and Tom Herman’s Cougars staff and signed on to play for Jim McElwain in the SEC. Cleveland believed in what McElwain was building, despite the distance from his Texas home and family and despite the risk he wouldn’t put up sensationalized numbers in Florida’s pro-style offense.
Cleveland, a world-class athlete and track star in high school whose long strides make his blazing speed deceptive, made a difference at Florida immediately, giving the Gators a vertical threat to complement the speed and route-running savvy of Antonio Callaway. As a freshman, Cleveland’s speed exploited LSU’s elite secondary on a 98-yard touchdown strike in a 16-10 win that, until Saturday, was Florida’s last win against a ranked opponent. The fact a 98-yard touchdown reception to lead a win in Baton Rouge seems secondary or an afterthought in the sophomore’s career to date says something of the scale and meaning of Cleveland’s play Saturday.
This catch, this touchdown, this win, was potentially a program-changer.
It’s been a tough few weeks for the Gators’ program, with the credit card suspensions to nine players, the opening game embarrassment against Michigan and Hurricane Irma all weighing on the locker room.
But it’s arguably been the toughest month for Tyrie Cleveland. On the field and off the field, his life has been a pressure-cooker.
Prior to Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc and destruction on Cleveland’s hometown of Houston, leaving plenty of folks with whome he grew up with damage to their homes, without power and worse, with little hope. Before the Michigan game, Cleveland spoke of wanting to play for all those affected by Harvey back home in Houston.
Meanwhile, the suspensions to Jordan Scarlett and Antonio Callaway, two of the only players Florida returned on offense who produced more than Cleveland did as a freshman, served to add pressure. A season where Cleveland seemed poised to thrive as an excellent secondary option suddenly became a season where the sophomore needed to lead the receiving corps.
Perhaps that’s why Cleveland broke down on the field after scoring. The pressure, on him and the program, had been released.
Before the touchdown pass from Franks, Cleveland had a relatively quiet afternoon, hauling in four passes for 30 yards on only seven targets. But with 9 seconds remaining, he knew he could make the play his team needed.
“Just give me a chance,” Cleveland told McElwain and Franks during the timeout that preceded the play. The coach and quarterback listened.
The call: “Train Right Open, Big Ben In,” is the exact same call that saw Will Grier and Antonio Callaway hook up on in 2015 to break Tennessee’s heart. And while those two plays happened differently, the result was the same: a 63-yard touchdown that secured a stunning victory.
This time, Cleveland lined up on the opposite side of the field from where Callaway had been in 2015, and rather than cutting inside, Cleveland sized up the coverage and saw a chance to use his world-class speed.
“I saw the corner press inside, and I just ran fast,” Cleveland said. “I don’t think I’ve ever run that fast in my life.”
The throw from Franks, a 70-yard parabola packed with a program’s worth of hope and dreams, seemed to sail forever. But Cleveland had his man beat, his eyes fixed on the ball, and collected it calmly before being pummeled in celebratory pandemonium.
“We wanted to come out here and play for these fans, the best in America,” Cleveland told CBS after the game. “For all the people suffering after Hurricane Irma, we had to win this game,” he added, his voice a blend of joy and relief.
For one night, Gators fans struggling after Irma could smile and breathe a bit easier.
In 9 seconds, Florida’s season was saved.
It’s hard to blame Cleveland for wanting a bit longer to savor the moment.