Florida's mental and physical toughness pace huge comeback win at Vanderbilt
Florida wasn’t its best Saturday afternoon in Nashville. The Gators were inefficient in the red zone, failed to take care of the football, struggled to maintain their composure and fell behind 21-3 late in the first half at Vanderbilt Stadium.
Most Gators teams over the last decade would have made excuses and quit, blaming the early start (11 AM CT), sleepy atmosphere after two weeks in hyped-up environments in Starkville and The Swamp, or questionable early officiating, which culminated in bench-clearing melee late in the first half.
This Gator team didn’t. Instead, it found a way to orchestrate the largest come-from-behind road victory in Florida program history.
And perhaps that’s the largest lesson from Florida’s come-from-way-behind 37-27 victory over Vanderbilt in Nashville Saturday.
Under Dan Mullen and a new coaching staff, Florida isn’t just schematically better. They are tougher, more physical, and resolute. Saturday, on a day it would have been easy to quit, Florida showed that this team, this program, is tired of losing. Florida might not have the best talent and they may not play great or execute at a high level every Saturday, but you better buckle your chin strap if you play the Gators. You better beat them for 60 minutes, because they won’t quit.
Lamical Perine, Jordan Scarlett, Tommy Townsend and a determined Florida offensive line keyed the comeback on Saturday in Nashville.
Down 18 points with 6 minutes to play in the first half and with Feleipe Franks struggling, the Gators put together an impressive 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by a 7-yard Perine touchdown run to cut the Commodores lead to 11. Perine collected 40 yards on the possession on five touches, the most vital of which was a 19-yard reception on a third-and-6 to extend the drive and move the Gators inside the 20.
On the afternoon, Perine would lead the Gators in rushing (121 yards) and receiving (93 yards), collecting a total of 194 yards and averaging over 7 yards a touch to pace a Florida offense that started slow but finished the day with 576 yards of total offense.
Perine would come up huge on Florida’s following possession, again on a critical third down.
This time, with Dan Mullen contemplating running out the clock and taking a strange game to the locker room with under a minute to play in the first half, Perine collected another Franks screen, made one beautiful inside cut and galloped 63 yards inside the Vanderbilt 10-yard line.
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The play helped Florida steal three points — and perhaps more critically, momentum — headed into the locker rooms at half, where the Gators had to feel fortunate to be down only eight points.
The Gators came out of the locker room and punted, and one possession later, Florida appeared to have stalled again. Instead, it was bold play calling from Dan Mullen and punter Tommy Townsend, already on his way to an All-SEC type season, who breathed additional life into Florida’s comeback.
Set to punt, the Gators pulled off a clinically-executed fake on a long run by Townsend and, two plays later, Franks found Van Jefferson for a crucial score to cut the Vandy lead to one.
From there, Florida’s offensive line would take over.
Backed up on their own 5-yard line, the Gators would move 95 yards on eight plays in just under 3 minutes to take the lead, seizing their first lead of the game on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Jordan Scarlett burst 48 yards around right end to give Florida the lead. Scarlett would finish the day with 113 yards on 16 carries, giving the Gators their first game with two 100-yard running backs in three seasons.
Florida would put together another lengthy touchdown drive to extend the lead to 34-24 midway through the fourth quarter, but after the Commodores answered with Riley Guay’s 53-yard field goal to cut the lead to seven, it was Perine and the physical Gators offensive line that would salt away the victory.
With just over 2 minutes remaining, Perine would blast through a huge hole on the right side and run behind tight end C’yontai Lewis for a 25-yard carry that all but iced the win for Florida.
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It was unorthodox for Florida, but in erasing an 18-point road deficit, Florida proved it could do two things that are requirements for any team with championship aspirations.
First, the Gators’ offensive line showed it can overpower an opponent on the road. On an afternoon where Franks struggled to protect the football (2 turnovers) and make intermediate throws, the Gators ran for 292 yards on 63 carries, collecting four 20-yard-plus explosive run plays along the way.
Second, Florida didn’t quit and, in fact, seemed to gather focus and composure after a questionable targeting call late in the first half nearly resulted in a bench-clearing melee and did result in the ejection of Florida linebacker Vosean Joseph and a heated exchange between Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason and Mullen.
Championship seasons almost always have the type of game we saw in Nashville on Saturday, where a team destined for great things isn’t at its mental or physical best, but finds the will and a way to win.
Coming off two huge victories in frenzied SEC environments, first at Mississippi State and then at home against LSU, it would have been easy for Florida to just decide that Saturday wasn’t their day, that the decked was stacked against them and 18 points behind was too tall a mountain to climb.
Instead, Florida found the will and a way to win. As a result, the win gets a program that won four games a year ago already bowl eligible in 2018.
As a bonus, Mullen gets both a film that offers plenty for Florida to work on during its bye week and the chance to ready his new program for a showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville that will, to borrow a phrase, just mean more.
That’s heady stuff, and it’s only possible because of Florida’s newfound toughness, defined by a rejuvenated offensive line, Jordan Scarlett and the marvelous Lamical Perine.