Tyrie Cleveland raised his hand like a student who had the answer.
Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks saw his sophomore receiver’s arm waving in open space and called on him. One long throw and 63-yards later, Cleveland collapsed in the end zone holding the football.
He left no time for Tennessee to rebut. The clock was off; the score was set: Gators win, 26-20.
When it was all over, Franks said he didn’t even plan to throw a deep ball on the play.
“When I was rolling out, I was actually thinking about running it,” Franks said. “And then through the corner of my eye I just see Tyrie running through the back.”
The catch capped an 18-for-28 day for Franks, totalling 218 passing yards with one interception and two touchdowns.
“I think everybody found out that Feleipe can throw the ball a long ways in the air,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said.
No. 24 Florida’s (1-1) game against the No. 23 Volunteers (2-1) started as many expected: low scoring. Florida went to the locker room at halftime clinging to a shaky 6-3 lead thanks to a last-minute field-goal miss by Tennessee.
Gators running back Lamical Perine kickstarted the second-half offense with a 21-yard run. That was, until Perine was stripped by Tennessee defensive back Nigel Warrior, dropping the ball along with any momentum Florida had coming out of the halftime tunnel.
“We had a physical run, and then we spit it on the ground, and then we lose the field position part again,” McElwain said.
Tennessee strung together a five-minute drive, working the ball to Florida’s one-yard line. But Florida defensive back Duke Dawson bailed out the defense with an interception just a few plays after letting a pass slip through his fingers.
The game continued into the fourth quarter as a 6-3 defensive battle/offensive struggle.
Then, 37 points in the final fifteen minutes sent the game into chaos.
It started with freshman CJ Henderson’s tip interception and 16-yard touchdown return, his second in just two games.
After Tennessee’s next drive ended in a missed field goal, UF freshman running back Malik Davis sprinted 72 yards into the end zone but was stripped as he fell into the end zone, letting the ball roll out for a touchback. What would’ve been a 20-3 Florida lead was back to 13-3 with the touchdown taken off the board.
"Malik's fumble, I mean, heckuva play by their guy, man," McElwain said. "We can't do that."
A few plays later, Tennessee running back John Kelly broke free on a 34-yard touchdown run to cut the Vols’ deficit to three points, part of his 237-yard game (141 rushing, 96 receiving). But Kelly gave the Gators 15 yards back after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the end zone. Cleveland returned the shortened kick all the way to Tennessee’s 44-yard line. Florida capitalized on their field position as Franks put together a seven-play drive culminating in UF’s first offensive touchdown of the season, a 5-yard pass to receiver Brandon Powell.
It took the Volunteers all of two plays — a 52-yard screen to Kelly and a 28-yard touchdown pass — to cut Florida’s lead back to three points.
Then Tennessee got its own tipped interception, the first of Franks’ career. The Volunteers converted on a 27-yard field goal and knotted the game at 20-20 with 50 seconds to play.
As the Gators began their last-minute drive, McElwain looked like he was happy to finish the game in overtime, letting the clock tick to nine seconds before calling a timeout.
Then it happened.
Franks scrambled on the last play, looking to get to the sideline before the clock hit zero to set up a final heave.
But that’s when Franks saw the No. 89 jersey of Cleveland streaking toward the goal post.
“Before the play, I told Feleipe, ‘Give me a chance,’” Cleveland said. “I inside released and just ran fast.”
Franks took a crow hop, launched the ball and was knocked down. The next thing he heard and felt were the sounds euphoria in a stadium filled with 87,736 sets of eyes. The referees gave the touchdown signal. No extra point necessary.
“As a kid you always think about plays like that happening,” Franks said. “It’s undescribable. I’ll enjoy it.”
You can follow Matt Brannon on Twitter @MattB_727, and contact him at [email protected].