BY: KASSIDY HILL
Train Right Jill, Big Ben In.
It’s a play that pulled off two late, improbable wins and sent two daggers into the heart of the Tennessee Volunteers. When thinking about the plays, the moments, that help make college football special and punctuate our hearts as the reason we’re fans, few come close to Train Right Jill, Big Ben In.
The first time it was called was in late September 2015 and it’s more colloquially known as Grier to Callaway. It was a 3:30pm kick off in the game that historically sets the tone for the SEC East. As the afternoon rolled into evening and the sun dipped low enough to cast the entirety of Florida Field (this pre-dated the Steve Spurrier name addition) into shadow, the Gators knew they to get on the board for any hope of a win.
Florida had scored on their previous possession—thanks in part to two 4th down conversions—to cut the deficit to 27-21. After the defense forced a Vols three and out, Antonio Callaway returned a punt 12-yards. Out trotted Will Grier and company, taking over at the UF 41-yard line.
Both teams were unranked coming into this game. The matchup—at the time—seemed to mean little to anyone not in the stadium or Knoxville city limits. Yet in that moment, there was a palpable sense of anticipation that came in waves over the amassed crowd. The previous touchdown drive had put this game within reach and with 2:18 left to play, there was just enough hope glimmering that’ll make any junkie like a college football fan hold on for the hit.
The first snap came and Grier swung a screen pass out to running back Kelvin Taylor. He was hit for a four yard loss. Two incomplete passes to Demarcus Robinson meant the Gators were now backed up to their own 37-yard line and facing yet another fourth down—4th and 14 in fact.
With 1:40 on the clock, the call came in that was intended to move the chains. That still required a chunk yardage play.
“It’s Train Right, Jill, Big Ben, In. Why? Why not? That’s the name of it,” head coach Jim McElwain told reporters after the win.
“We blow out the middle, run a little double-dig deal and hopefully you have enough time up front to read it inside-out. We try to get it to the sticks. It’s something we do every single Friday. …Something that our guys practice every week against teams that are in those long-yardage defenses.”
Grier zipped it to Callaway, the inside option. He had enough for the first down. With his right foot on the 44-yard line, his left on the 45 and back to the endzone, Callaway planted, flipped his body around and with three defenders waiting, raced for the edge. He got a key block from Brandon Powell—who had been the outside option on the play—and from there, the field was open.
“Callaway. Just made a hell of a play, man. That guy has just stepped up and is making a lot of plays. He turned that first down into a touchdown. Big players make big plays in big games like that,” recapped Grier following the game.
Safety Keanu Neal summed it up best for media that Saturday evening.
“I was praying but I didn’t think it was going to happen. It was amazing. That was a classic…I just prayed and hoped for the best. He freaking scored. Just unbelievable. It was such a memorable moment.”
Tennessee took the ball back and drove down to put themselves in position for what would be a game winning field goal. The first attempt was wide-right and the crowd went so nuts that it took a minute for anyone to realize that in an attempt to (needlessly) ice the kicker, Florida had called a timeout. The second attempt, Aaron Medley got much closer…but not enough, just skating the kick outside the right upright.
Two years later, that same play would pay dividends once again. In 2017, both UF and the Vols came into the matchup ranked. But Will Grier was gone, Antonio Callaway was suspended and Jim McElwain was on thin ice. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks had not impressed in his career opener against Michigan but McElwain elected to give him another shot in the early September SEC opener against Tennessee.
We could call the first three quarters a defensive battle, which is given some credence by three drives ending in turnovers during that time. But that really doesn’t give enough credit to just how incompetent the offenses were during that time; really, truly mind-numbingly incompetent. So it’s no surprise that it was the defense as well that finally pried open the flood gates.
Whereas the 2015 game could sort of be encapsulated by the Grier to Callaway play and ensuing missed Vols field goal, the 2017 historic moment can only be fully appreciated if you understand the domino’s that fell to arrive at that situation.
A Duke Dawson interception had already stalled the Vols once in the redzone towards the end of the third quarter. Now two snaps into the 4th quarter and facing a 3rd and 11 from his own seven, Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady felt T.J. Slaton bearing down on him. He was hit as he threw, tossing up a high ball towards the sideline. His receiver attempted to tip it down into his chest. Instead he tipped it backwards into the waiting hands of C.J. Henderson. The fastest man on the field made easy work of the 16-yards in front of him to the endzone and the first touchdown of the day finally made it onto the scoreboard.
Tennessee answered with a touchdown of their own, but after Tyrie Cleveland returned a punt 46-yards, Franks capped a drive with a 5-yard toss to Brandon Powell for another score. The Vols answered again on a two play drive that covered 75-yards and the two teams which had treated the endzone like hot lava all day had now combined for four touchdowns in 10:17 of play time.
Then….well then things got weird.
Florida went negative four yards on a drive that ended in a Franks interception. The Vols got the ball back down three with 3:57 to play. They converted a 1st down fairly quickly then a Florida offside flag, back-to-back UT false starts then a Gators face mask penalty moved the ball around until it ended up on the UF-nine yard line. Tennessee had first and goal and the clock had been whittled down to 1:06. Three straight incomplete passes meant that the Vols—who had already missed three field goals that day—had to settle for a 27-yard attempt. This fifth attempt of the day though (from Medley who had missed the game winner in 2015) was good. All tied at 20 with less than a minute to go, we looked to be heading for overtime.
Franks and the Gators took back over at their own 25-yard line. A quick pass and two short rushes moved the chains but had Florida fans booing as Franks was marked short on what looked to be a first down run; they continued as McElwain let the clock run down, electing to run on 3rd down instead of going to Tyrie Cleveland on the sideline who had a one-on-one battle. He was holding a timeout, he later explained to reporters, in case they needed to spike the ball for place kicker Eddy Pineiro. And that was the plan.
With 0:09 to go, and on the exact same yard line as 2015, McElwain went back to the chunk yardage play that had served them well two years prior.
“It was train ride open big ben in. Same exact play.”
Franks was supposed to play for field goal range. Instead—showing a bit of the fire that would define his Florida legacy in years to come—he saw another option and gambled.
“I didn’t go into the play looking to throw a deep ball. I knew the kick line was around the 35 or 38, so obviously with 9 seconds left it would be kind of hard to get it that far downfield and get out of bounds, stuff like that. I’m thinking in the back of my head ‘Get the balls into our receivers hands and let them make plays’, because that’s what they’re good at.”
In the offseason leading in to 2017, Tyrie Cleveland had posted a video of a late night summer session. He and Franks, along with a few other teammates, were in the indoor facility, working on some different routes. One in particular featured Cleveland as an outside option on a deep route with Feleipe flashing his arm strength.
On the field that Saturday in September, both guys knew it was time for the work to pay off.
"Before the play, I told Feleipe, ‘Give me a chance,’” recalled Cleveland after the game.
“I looked at him and he hiked the ball and I just—the corner was in press, so I inside released and just ran fast.”
Franks took the snap and scrambled for a second—an eternity with rushers coming and a clock ticking. Cleveland, as he said, took an inside release off the corner as Franks was being flushed to his right. Looking back at the tape, you can almost see the exact moment Feleipe released he had Cleveland open. His hand that had been out for balance on a run was brought back in; he took another step, giving him enough real estate to set his feet. And then, he let it rip.
“When I was rolling out I was actually thinking about running it,” said Franks, “and through the corner of my eye I see Tyrie running through the back on a little chase post back that way. Corner of my eye, it was kind of an in-the-moment thing, so I just caught him out my eye and set my feet and just put it up for him. And he just did a great job making a 50-50 win.
We describe passes by the total number of yards they cover but often they can be broken down into yards on air and yards after the catch. For example, the 63-yarder from Grier to Callaway that won the game in 2015 was more like a 19-yard on air pass coupled with a 44-yard run by Callaway.
This 63-yarder from Franks to Cleveland spent it’s entire time in the air. And technically it hit Cleveland five yards deep in the endzone so one could argue that it easily traveled 68+ yards. On the other end of the tether was Tyrie, who had shaken off a corner initially to get open but still had to deal with a safety for a contested catch. But if you asked him, the 50/50 ball had a 100% chance of being a touchdown.
“Oh, I knew I had it. I knew I was going to come down with it. I made it my business to come down with it. I wanted that ball and I got it.”
The ball landed in Cleveland’s outstretched arms as the clock ticked to 0:01 and it rolled to 0:00 as the receiver landed safely for the score. Brandon Powell—still an outside option on the play—was yet again exactly where he needed to be. He launched himself onto Cleveland, partly to hold him in place to make sure the score counted and partly in celebration. But at that point, it was all over but the shouting.
Both Franks and Cleveland have since had time to reflect on what that play meant to them individually, what it meant to them as teammates and what it meant to the Gator Nation. But on that day, in that moment, it was every thing they’d dreamed of as kids and it brought with it a lifetime of emotions.
“It’s kind of hard to take it all in right now,” admitted Franks at the time
“It’s going to sink in at one point and then I'm going to sit back and realize what just happened. Growing up, we always think about plays like that happening in your life and then when it happens, it's kind of undescribable. There aren't really any words that I can put into what just happened.”
Words didn’t come much easier to Cleveland, which really said it all.
“Growing up I always dreamed of making that game-winning touchdown, to make it come true is indescribable. I really can’t describe right now, I’m trying to soak it all in.”
No one that was a part of those plays are still in the Florida program. McElwain was fired before the 2017 season even concluded. Will Grier transferred to West Virginia and is now with the Carolina Panthers. Antonio Callaway served his suspension and then went out for the Draft. He’s now in the XFL. Brandon Powell graduated and is now with the Atlanta Falcons. Feleipe Franks graduated and transferred to Arkansas where he’ll play his final collegiate season this fall. Tyrie Cleveland graduated and is working to be drafted this April.
They’re all gone now, moved on to the next phase of their lives. But while Gators, they took six words—Train Right Jill, Big Ben In—and created magic that will hang forever in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.