NASHVILLE — The Vanderbilt Commodores had just taken a 21-12 lead midway through the third quarter.
Florida’s offense had been inconsistent throughout the game, and it again faced a third and long from their own 24-yard line. Quarterback Anthony Richardson, who was being dragged to the ground and nearly sacked, threw a pass to wide receiver Thai Chiaokhiao-Bowman.
Bowman couldn’t reel in the reception, and Vanderbilt defensive back Jaylen Mahoney snatched a crucial interception.
On the very next play, Commodores quarterback Mike Wright hit tight end Ben Bresnahan around the 12-yard line. Bresnahan met Florida safety Trey Dean III inside the 5-yard line and dragged into the endzone.
Vanderbilt had changed possession and increased its lead to 28-12 in just 21 seconds.
The Gators (6-5, 3-5 SEC) fell to the Commodores (5-6, 2-5 SEC) 31-24 Saturday. Florida outgained Vanderbilt 445 yards to 283. Despite offensive proficiency, a bevy of errors kept the Gators from holding off Vanderbilt. The Commodores have now won back-to-back Southeastern Conference games for the first time since 2018.
“It’s a setback,” Florida head coach Billy Napier said “No question about it.”
Following a quick three and out from the Vanderbilt offense, Florida took the field and had a shaky opening drive. The Gators moved the ball 63 yards, but they had a multitude of errors: The possession included a snap miscue on the second play and a drop by sophomore running back Montrell Johnson Jr.
Florida overcame the self-inflicted obstacles with a pair of completions from Anthony Richardson. The first went to junior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall to convert a third and 25. The second to redshirt freshman wide receiver Deajon Reynolds to convert a fourth down.
Johnson’s drop killed the drive, and the Gators settled for a 26-yard Adam Mihalek field goal.
The Commodores offense began to click its next time out. Vanderbilt drove into UF territory, but faced a fourth down at the 39-yard line. Quarterback Mike Wright completed a pass to wide receiver Will Sheppard, who entered Saturday with the second most receiving touchdowns in the Southeastern Conference.
Right as Sheppard brought in the pass, he was hit hard by Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller. The ball was knocked loose and recovered by defensive back Jaydon Hill.
Richardson found redshirt junior wide receiver Justin Shorter for 14 yards to try and get Florida’s offense moving again. However, a run for no gain by freshman running back Trevor Etienne and two straight incompletions prompted punter Jeremy Crawshaw to take the field.
Vanderbilt continued to do most of its damage on the ground. The Commodores charged into the red zone with 38 rushing yards. Florida had a chance to get its defense off the field and seemingly did so with a sack by Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr. The 11-yard loss would flip into a 15-yard gain, however, as Powell-Ryland was called for a facemask penalty.
Six plays later, Vanderbilt scored its first points of the game on a 10-yard touchdown pass by Wright to wide receiver Jayden McGowan. Florida trailed the Commodores in yards, 117-62, and on the scoreboard, 7-3, with 10:02 remaining till halftime.
The Gators’ next drive began with 44 yards over the first five plays. Then, Johnson rumbled for a 27-yard run to put Florida inside the 5-yard line, but an illegal formation penalty scrapped the play. UF ran the ball three straight times following the penalty and only mustered two yards. Mihalek was sent out to attempt a 44-yard field goal, and he converted it to draw Florida within a point, 7-6.
Vanderbilt took over and quickly went three and out. On third down, Wright targeted Sheppard, and the pass was nearly intercepted by freshman safety Kamari Wilson. Chaos ensued on the following punt.
Florida sent defensive back Jason Marshall Jr. back deep as the returner — UF wide receiver Xzavier Henderson normally handles punt return duties but was out against Vanderbilt. Pearsall fielded a punt in the first quarter, but exited the game with a lower-body injury in the first half.
Marshall attempted to make a fair catch inside the 10-yard line, but he muffed the punt. The ball rolled into the endzone and a scrum ensued. At the bottom of the pile, the Commodores came up with the ball and a touchdown.
The next Gators’ drive: three and out. Luckily for Florida, Crawshaw was able to flip the field with a booming 58-yard punt. Vanderbilt couldn’t get anything cooking with just more than a minute till halftime, and the Commodores headed to their locker room, leading Florida 14-6.
UF received the ball out of the half and immediately started to let Richardson run the ball — the Gators’ first two plays were both rushes by Richardson. Florida’s drive was methodical, and it eventually crossed midfield. Needing a fourth-and-7 conversion, Richardson dropped in a beautiful pass to Shorter for a 28-yard gain and the pair's second connection of the drive.
Three plays later, Richardson perfectly executed a play action fake and hit Johnson in the flat for a touchdown. The Gators elected to try and tie the game with a two-point conversion, but the play failed.
The rest of the third quarter was all Vanderbilt.
The Commodores stormed down the field in 12 plays. The 66-yard drive was capped off by a 7-yard touchdown pass from Wright to fifth-year fullback Gavin Schoenwald. The ensuing possessions featured Richardson’s pick and Bresnahan’s 28-yard score.
Florida retaliated the first chance it got in the fourth quarter. Richardson unloaded deep and found Reynolds streaking down the middle of the field for a 74-yard touchdown. The Gators were once again unable to convert a two-point attempt, and Vanderbilt’s lead was 10, 28-18.
Just when things seemed like they could be turning Florida’s way, Miller was called for targeting after a hit on Bresnahan. Miller was ejected for the penalty. The Commodores continued to drive down field and Wright targeted Sheppard, who had Marshall in one-on-one coverage.
Marshall atoned for his earlier blunder by handing the Florida offense the ball back with an interception. With six minutes and change left in the game and trailing by two scores, Richardson and company needed to start scoring quickly.
UF’s couldn’t even pick up a first down. On a game-deciding fourth down, Richardson was unable to connect with Bowman. Vanderbilt took over already on the 12-yard line.
The Commodores tacked on an extra field goal for good measure, extending their lead to 13.
Florida would string together a final scoring drive to bring the game back to within a score. Mihalek missed the extra point and then couldn’t convert an onside kick. The Gators trailed by seven, 31-24, and forced a Vanderbilt three and out.
However, UF had no timeouts remaining and most of the remaining game clock was drawn out. Florida regained possession for the final time with 46 seconds remaining.
Richardson and company advanced the ball into Vanderbilt territory, but a final hail mary attempt by Richardson went sailing through the uprights.
The Gators will close out the regular season next Friday against in-state rival Florida State. Kickoff against the Seminoles is set for 7:30 p.m. and will broadcast on ABC.
Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper.