Florida Gators rally from first half deficit to avoid upset-minded Vanderbilt

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 13: Jordan Scarlett #25 of the Florida Gators is congratulated by teammates Nick Buchanan #66 and Trevon Grimes #8 after scoring a touchdown against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the second half at Vanderbilt Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 13: Jordan Scarlett #25 of the Florida Gators is congratulated by teammates Nick Buchanan #66 and Trevon Grimes #8 after scoring a touchdown against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the second half at Vanderbilt Stadium on October 13, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images) /

After struggling out of the gates in Nashville, the Florida Gators overcame adversity and regained their composure from a 21-3 first half deficit to Vanderbilt. As expected, the Commodores came out with a valiant effort and played loose against the Gators. Florida meanwhile, didn’t respond particularly the way that maybe they should have with the target on their back. I wouldn’t call the effort lethargic, but the Gators just didn’t execute on either side of the football in the first half.

However, say what you want to about the sloppy start, but this shows me about the will and confidence of this team to not flinch when they got gashed. Florida went into halftime and regrouped and came out in the second half and just simply executed. Dan Mullen didn’t panic and change his game plan, and the Gators responded with a decisive second half advantage.

Just about everything that could possibly go wrong for Florida did in the first half. On a cool, and breezy morning in Nashville, something the Gators are not used to, they had to dig themselves out of an 18-point hole before they could even warm up. And the surprising story is that everything that went right over the past few weeks for UF, went the other way this time around.

It all started when Feleipe Franks and the UF offense marched down the field with ease on their first possession of the morning following a three-and-out on Vandy’s first drive. Franks completed three consecutive passes for first downs on each drive and then Jordan Scarlet ate from there. With UF all the way down to the Vandy 5-yard line, Mullen calls a slant pass over the middle on second down instead of going back to Scarlet, and Franks’ pass was tipped and then picked off at the 2.

After the UF drive stalled, the Commodores went to work behind running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Vaughn reeled off a 43-yard run after the interception that would start a 9-play, 98-yard TD drive, far and away Vandy’s best drive of the season.

After the Commodore’s took the early lead, Florida answered with a 16-play drive but had to settle for a field goal.

Then, Kyle Shurmur and Vaughn connected on a perfectly executed screen pass that went 75-yards down the sidelines— giving Vandy the 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.

A bizarre play a few drives later would go the Commodores way on a Franks’ fumble that just kept rolling down the field, and Vandy would pick the football up right before it rolled out of bounds. I mean, Florida could just not catch a break, and the same breaks that many think they caught to get to this point.

The Commodores would punch it in 4 plays later and take the shocking 21-3 lead mid-way through the second quarter. Just as I expected, a slow start for the Gators, but this was just poor execution and bad discipline.

This game got chippy in the first half, as each bench cleared after a questionable targeting call, and coaches yelled obscenities, I’m sure, at each other towards the end of the first half. Florida’s Vosean Joseph also was ejected in the first half due to already having an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and then got another as the entire team was handed one. Joseph was not at all happy with that decision. UF did not play with the kind of focus that they needed to in the first half and were dug into their biggest hole all season as a result.

Florida would bring the lead to 21-10 on a 75-yard drive led by precision passes from Franks and critical running by Lamical Perine before halftime. Perine would score from 7-yards out to give the Gators their first TD, and on the following possession went 63-yards on a dump off from Franks that would result in an Evan McPherson chip shot to cut the lead to 21-13 at the half.

But the halftime lead is all the Commodores would get, because in the second half— the Florida Gators pulled it together.

After going three-and-out on the first possession of the second half, the Gators drive halted again near mid-field, and Mullen would pull another rabbit out of his hat on the punt. UF punter Tommy Townsend would begin to get into a punting stance and take off behind his blockers and give UF the momentum- changing first down. Three plays later, Franks would find Van Jefferson on a beautiful slant route and Jefferson would turn the other direction scampering free.

That would cut the lead to 21-20, and the Gator defense would get a stop. The next drive, Franks would find Moral Stephens down the middle of the field on a 26-yard key third-down conversion. And then, Scarlet would finally deliver his best run of the season, a 48-yard back-breaker down the sidelines through a crease made by the UF offensive line. Suddenly, the Gators had taken their first lead of the football game after taking every haymaker possible from Derek Mason’s team.

Just when UF had taken advantage and grabbed the momentum, freshman running back Dameon Pierce would cough up the football and give Vandy another chance. The Gator defense made the stand they needed, but Vandy kicker Riley Guay still connected on a field goal and cut the lead to 27-24 early in the 4th quarter.

Again, after another miscue, the Gators countered on the following drive, going 75-yards behind a remarkable 27-yard run that only Kadarius Toney could make. Then, Franks found his clutch playmaker Freddie Swain, and Swain would take care of the rest for the dagger, leaping over defenders for the TD and giving UF the 34-24 lead with 8 minutes to go.

Vandy would just not go away though. Shurmur would lead the Commodores on a charge before the drive was yielded by the Gators, but not before they were in Guay’s range for a 53-yard boot to put the game back within 7.

That’s when Perine would complete this come-from-behind victory with thunderous runs and McPherson would chip-in a field goal of his own to ice this game, giving UF the 37-27 lead with less than a minute to play.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who was pretty quiet throughout, finished off the Commodores in fitting fashion after a turnover-plagued morning. Gardner-Johnson snagged Shurmur’s pass giving UF their first takeaway of the game and finalizing the 10-point win.

I feel like Florida was tested today, and this comeback with their backs against the wall taught this team more than say a blowout win in Nashville. The Gators continue to find ways to win and have so in each of their last four outings, and that shows traits of a great and dare I say— championship team.

Now I’m speaking way ahead of myself perhaps, but with the way things unraveled in Baton Rouge, that circled calendar date against Georgia looks more and more in favor of these Gators.

Florida still has so much room for improvement and plenty to work on during the upcoming bye week to cement their place in the east. But after that off week, the Cocktail Party and Georgia awaits. I think that after coming off of the loss to LSU especially, the Bulldogs will be ready for that game, but I also believe that the Gators will be ready for their rivals when they collide in two weeks. This was a collective team win, much like the last few weeks, but Florida must play much better for four quarters to take down a ‘Dawgs team that will be hungry and barking to get the hated Gators.