In the first year of the Urban Meyer era, Florida football survived a double-overtime scare from Jay Culter and Vanderbilt.
Smack dab in the middle of the 14-10 upset over Georgia and first meeting with former Florida football coach Steve Spurrier on the South Carolina sideline sat a trap game with a sneaky good Vanderbilt football team led by QB Jay Cutler.
Cutler, a senior from Santa Claus, Indiana, put on the best performance by a visiting quarterback during my four years as a student in Gainesville.
“This was one of Vandy’s best teams with future Chicago Bears, Jay Culter and Earl Bennett a quarterback and wideout, respectively. It was one of the best offensive performances for Urban Meyer’s first Florida team, but Gators couldn’t stop the Commodores.”
Wins against Wake Forest, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Richmond allowed 2005 Vanderbilt to race out to a 4-0, the school’s best start since 1984.
In the fifth game of the season, Middle Tennessee State blocked a late field goal for a 17-15 win at Vandy.
A grueling stretch of No. 11 LSU and No. 5 Georgia at home plus a trip to Columbia quickly sank the Commodores back to 4-4 before the November 5 matchup at Florida.
“The game with Middle Tennessee State should have been won long before the field goal attempt. We just dropped passes, missed tackles and the things that you revert back to bad habits when you get in pressure situations. It was one of those situations. Our guys kept fighting after that. We went into the part of the schedule, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and the teams we didn’t build a 4-0 record against and it make it tough, but we still competed against those teams. Again during that time of the year we were battling the depth problem we had every year. Our guys kept working at it.”
Bobby Johnson, vucommodores.com
Urban Meyer also sprinted out to a 4-0 start in his first season with Florida football before a brutal October stretch.
The Gators failed to show against Mike Shula‘s No. 15 Alabama in a 31-3 road defeat, lost 21-17 in Death Valley to No. 10 LSU, and finished the month with an upset of #4 Georgia in Jacksonville.
6-2 Florida football jumped from No. 16 to No. 13 after the win over the Dawgs but needed to win out to have a shot at the SEC East title.
Steve Spurrier would ultimately end up spoiling the Gators’ SEC East hopes in the final conference game of the season, which could be one reason why the wild 2005 win over Vanderbilt is often overlooked.
It took only a little over two minutes after the 7:15 PM ET kickoff for Cutler to lead the Commodores six plays and 70 yards for the first score of the night.
“Quarterback Jay Cutler’s 14-yard TD pass to Bennett on the opening drive was Vanderbilt’s first first-quarter touchdown of the season. Vandy had totaled only 12 points (four field goals) in the first quarters this season. It was also the first time Vanderbilt had scored any points on an opening driving this season.”
Bryan Mullen, The Tennessean, Sunday, November 6, 2005
Score: Vanderbilt 7, Florida 0 (Q1, 12:48)
QB Chris Leak punched in a one-yard run to cap a 13-play, 79-yard drive for a touchdown. Florida football RB Markus Manson’s four carries on the drive included a 17-yard run.
Score: Florida 7, Vanderbilt 7 (Q1, 5:08)
Vandy’s second possession ended with a pick. Florida football CB Vernell Brown picked off Cutler on 3rd & 6 and set the offense up with prime field position on the Vanderbilt 38-yard line.
The first quarter expired after two Chris Leak runs. Leak converted on a 4th & 1 run at the Vandy 29-yard line and followed it with a 9-yard rush down inside to bring the drive into the red zone.
RB Kestahn Moore took a Leak shovel pass and rumbled nine yards into the end zone to give the Gators their first lead.
Score: Florida 14, Vanderbilt 7 (Q2, 13:36)
Vandy and Florida traded a couple of three-and-outs.
Starting CB Vernell Brown sustained a broken left fibula returning a punt on the next possession. WR Chad Jackson took over in the punt returner role and CB Reggie Lewis stepped in to replace Brown at corner.
Vanderbilt RB Jeff Jennings rumbled for 21 yards into Florida territory. A few plays later, Cutler hit WR Marlon White in traffic for a 16-yard gain down to the Florida 1 and Vandy punched it in on the next play to tie up the game.
Score: Vanderbilt 14, Florida 14 (Q2, 6:26)
Two possessions later, Florida’s nine-play, 76-yard drive stalled out inside of the Vanderbilt 10-yard line and K Christ Hetland, a typically reliable kicker, missed a 26-yard field goal as time expired before the half.
Halftime Score: Florida 14, Vanderbilt 14
Gators P Eric Wilbur’s 47-yard punt resulted in a three-yard loss on the return and pinned Vandy at their own 15-yard line.
After a four-yard rush on first down, Cutler mishandled the snap from under center and Florida MLB Brandon Siler recovered giving the Gators possession at the Commodores’ 14-yard line.
Two plays later, Florida WR Chad Jackson took a reverse pitch around the right edge and rushed for a nine-yard touchdown.
Score: Florida 21, Vanderbilt 14 (Q3, 12:47)
Vandy appeared to be unshaken by the costly turnover and Cutler marched the Commodores into Florida territory. On the seventh play of the drive, Cutler completed a pass to Bennett, who made two defenders miss before losing the football. Once again, Siler scooped up the loose ball and returned it into Vanderbilt territory.
Score: Florida 28, Vanderbilt 14 (Q3, 3:51)
After two punts to close the third quarter, Cutler carved up the Gators secondary with passes of 22 yards to Bennett, 30 yards to White after slipping out of a Florida football DE Jarvis Moss attempted sack, and a 14-yard touchdown pass to senior WR Erik Davis to pull within a score early in the fourth.
Florida football CB Reggie Lewis was flagged for holding on the touchdown, but the penalty was declined.
Score: Florida 28, Vanderbilt 21 (Q4, 12:49)
Just when Cutler was heating up against a struggling secondary, Leak responded in a big way, leading Florida football on 16 play, 80-yard drive that ate up 8:32 in the fourth quarter.
Manson capped the drive off with a two-yard touchdown run to put Florida football up by two scores with under five minutes to go.
Score: Florida 35, Vanderbilt 21 (Q4, 4:11)
Undeterred, Cutler dropped back on 10 straight snaps on the next drive and eclipsed the 300-yard mark passing as he led the Commodores 61 yards to a touchdown in just a little under two minutes.
Score: Florida 35, Vanderbilt 28 (Q4, 2:17)
In the stadium, you just had the sense that Cutler was unstoppable at that point and when Vandy recovered the onside kick attempt, Florida was staring at the possibility of blowing a two-touchdown lead with under five minutes left to the Commodores.
Vanderbilt took over on their own 43-yard line after the onside kick recovery. Several plays later, Cutler converted on 3rd & 10 from the Florida 37-yard line with a 31-yard strike to Erik Davis.
On 2nd & Goal, Cutler hit Bennett over the middle for a six-yard touchdown pass to bring the Commodores within one point.
Score: Florida 35, Vanderbilt 34
“The Commodores were going for the win. That is until the freshman drew a huge penalty.
When freshman receiver Earl Bennett caught a 6-yard touchdown pass with 54 seconds remaining in regulation, it cut Florida’s lead to 35-34.
Vandy Coach Bobby Johnson said he was ready to go for a two-point conversion and essentially end the game. But Bennett was flagged for a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration.”
Bryan Mullen, The Tennessean, Sunday, November 6, 2005
Let’s take a look at Earl Bennett’s excessive celebration:
From the Vandy perspective, the officials had made a phantom call.
Television replays could not back up the penalty call. The 15-yard mark-off meant an extra point kick instead of the chance at the win with a two-point conversion. Johnson made up his mind on the TD drive that he was going for the victory if his Commodores found the end zone.
“Same things we were doing against Florida should have won that game,” said Johnson. “I think that was one of those games that was stolen from us. You can’t say what you want to say [to the officials] because you want to watch the rest of the game on the sidelines. You don’t want to hurt your team by getting a 15-yard penalty by saying something stupid.
“I never saw what Earl did until somebody had some unofficial footage. Obviously to anybody that saw it he did absolutely nothing, but hold out his hands to embrace one of his offensive linemen and hug him. I didn’t see it so the guy told me it was excessive celebration. I didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not.”
Bobby Johnson, VUCommodores.com
If you watch closely, you’ll notice a slight attempt at a dance that was quickly interrupted by a celebrating lineman, but a penalty for excessive celebrations seems a bit…excessive.
Maybe the refs were just as upset as everyone in Orange & Blue?
No one in The Swamp took issue with the call except for Bobby Johnson and Vandy’s kicker hit the excessively long extra point to all but guarantee overtime.
Score: Florida 35, Vanderbilt 35 (Q4, 0:54)
Florida’s final drive stalled out around midfield and the Gators punted back to the ‘Dores with under ten seconds remaining.
Score at the end of regulation: Florida 35, Vanderbilt 35
The Vandy offense opened OT the way it finished regulation, on fire. Florida CB Reggie Lewis was flagged for holding on 3rd & 1 and, two plays later, the Commodores stuck the ball in the end zone after five plays to take it’s first lead since being up 7-0 in the first quarter.
Score after first possession OT: Vanderbilt 42, Florida 35
Just like he had all night, Leak responded by leading a four-play drive that resulted in a nine-yard touchdown pass to Chad Jackson.
Score after first possession OT: Florida 42, Vanderbilt 42
Florida kicked things off in the second overtime with a pretty 16-yard pass from Leak to a man with impeccable footwork by the name of Jemalle Cornelius in the back of the end zone on the second play of the drive.
Score after first possession 2OT: Florida 49, Vanderbilt 42
Cutler had found his groove in the second half, but the senior starter was not immune to bad plays on the night.
Meyer tried to rally his defense before sending them out onto the field.
“Before the play, Meyer had gathered his defense and delivered a message, ‘I told them someone was gong to find a way to make a play to win the game,’ Meyer said, ‘In big-time games like that, that’s how it happens.”‘
Andy Staples, Tampa Tribune, Sunday, November 6, 2005
Cutler lined up under, took a quick dropback, stepped and fired over to the left side.
Despite struggling throughout the night, Florida football CB Reggie Lewis was that someone who found a way to make a play to win the game.
Lewis came up with an interception, Vanderbilt’s fourth turnover on the night, and sealed the win for the Gators in double overtime.
Final score: Florida 49, Vanderbilt 42 (2OT)
Jay Cutler ended the game with 361 yards passing and four touchdowns.
“Their quarterback is a really good football player – hands down he’s the best football player I’ve ever faced.”
Jarvis Moss, Florida defensive end, SEC Football: 75 years of Pride and Passion
Cutler may have stolen the spotlight on this night, but Chris Leak had an answer for Cutler when needed. The junior quarterback posted one of his best performances of 2005 with 32-41 passing for 257 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Leak also led the team in rushing with 67 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns on the ground.
It may have been an ugly win, but Florida had spent much of the Zook era losing these types of games, so the fans were happy to escape with a win.
Meyer avoided an embarrassing home loss in year one, ended the season with a perfect record in The Swamp, and carried that momentum into the offseason that brought in a legendary recruiting class that would help bring home two national titles in the next three years.
No. 10 Florida football hosts Vanderbilt at noon Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.