LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY—Megan Mullen paced in the Florida Gators tunnel, taking quick peaks at the field before turning back around in nervousness.
On the sideline, specialists for the Gators began to gather, preparing to be called upon any moment.
Kicker Evan McPherson (1-2) hung back by himself, sipping Gatorade and walking in small circles to keep moving, anticipating he’d be needed to answer what looked like a coming Kentucky field goal.
The No. 9 Florida Gators (3-0, 1-0) held their breath, glancing at the scoreboard that read 22-21, Florida leading Kentucky, with 0:56 left to play in the game. Then they glanced at the Wildcats, lined up for a go-ahead 35-yard field goal.
And then, the improbable unfolded in such a way that was befitting the full moon which hung over Lexington. Kentucky’s kicker, Chance Poore, pushed it wide right. There was a moment of confusion when Cats fans thought it was good because from the sideline it was a hard angle to surmise. But once the officials waved off the attempt, the Gators sideline erupted with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham giving the air a passionate fist pump.
“Told you he wasn’t making it. It’s a full moon tonight. No way it was happening,” one player gleefully shouted.
The celebration had barely dissipated when Josh Hammond (90 all purpose yards, one touchdown) took a jet sweep and raced 76-yards, stepping out of a tackle near the goal line but carrying too much momentum to be stopped by any force at that point.
The Gators won 29-21 over Kentucky (2-1, 0-1).
The play call on the game winner? Simple, according to Hammond.
“Stay in bounds. It was just a jet sweep. We ran it the first time and saw that they didn’t really bump so the next time we knew we could get it and he just told me to stay in bounds.”
The Wildcats threw some quick outs, hoping to get into the endzone in the remaining 0:33 seconds, and go for a 2-point conversion to tie. But freshman corner Kaiir Elam showed off his coverage skills yet again with a second interception in as many weeks. His pick at the UF 9-yard line meant Florida could end this one in victory formation.
It was a bittersweet victory though as it came at a price. Starting quarterback Feleipe Franks was lost for the year with what head coach Dan Mullen described as “a break and some dislocations” in his right leg/ankle that have ended the redshirt junior’s season.
Franks was attempting to pick up a first down, diving on 4th and 1, when his 6’6” frame was bent back over a defensive player. He fell to the ground and didn’t move as trainers immediately went to him. Receivers Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland went to Franks side and kneeled, praying for him, as trainers placed Franks in an air-cast. As tears streamed down his face, Franks was loaded onto a cart with the entire Gators team around him.
He watched the remainder of the game from the locker room. After the conclusion of the game, Franks stood on his crutches and gave the team a message.
"He was in the locker room. He sang the fight song with us,” explains Hammond.
"He was good. Obviously he's down from being hurt but he's all about the team. He just told us, 'make sure you stay together, don't take anything for granted. Be ready to play your plays like it's your last play because you never know when it could happen. He's definitely devastated but he's with us 100-percent. He's still that leader. He’s going to try to do whatever he can to help us.”
Adds linebacker Jon Greenard, “how he went out, him trying to get that first down and I respected that so much more. I respected him so much more because he's laying it all out there on the line for us. Just to see him go down like that, in that fashion, we had to go out and put everything we had into that game to come out victorious and make him happy. He's still in high hopes. He understands what's going on. We’re going to continue to play. Next man up.”
Franks went 12-17 for 174 yards with a touchdown and an interception through the air 23 yards on eight rushes. He had two rushing touchdowns called back for penalties—one for holding on tight end Keon Zipperer and one for holding on offensive lineman Jean Delance.
It is that stat which tells the larger story of this game. The Gators would create a positive play, gain momentum, and then take two steps back. In the first quarter, on a Cats drive that would end the period, defensive lineman Jon Greenard (six tackles, one sack) had a sack on Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith (23-35, 267 yards, two TD, 3 INT) for a loss of eight yards, back to the UK-10. The next play, now 3rd and 21, Smith found Ahmad Wagner for a 23-yard completion.
The Gators opened the second quarter with a 31-yard explosive pass from Franks to Van Jefferson (7 receptions, 93 yards), only to have a blown coverage on the next play get Franks sacked, leading to a fumble.
The defense seemed to catch a break when Smith badly overthrew Lynn Bowden in the 3rd quarter, only to see him find Wagner over Marco Wilson again, this time for 21 yards. To add insult to injury, safety Donovan Stiner came in late on the hit with head lowered and was ejected for targeting. He’ll have to miss the first half of next week’s game against Tennessee as part of the penalty.
And so on, and so forth.
“We weren’t very good on third down,” says Mullen.
"We did a lot of things poorly, really bad on third down all night long on defense until we found a way to be good and then we were good until the end. Offensively we killed ourselves with some penalties at critical moments. Every time they would hit it, it was like a holding penalty, 'hey we’re in the red zone at first and 25'. So that was kind of disappointing.”
But as they did against Miami in Week 0, this scrappy Florida team found a way to make the most important plays at the most important times and pull out a win. In the madcap world of college football—and cutthroat SEC league—that’s the stat that matters most.
Greenard says on the sideline, there was never a doubt. They know what they did wrong. But they also knew it could be overcome.
“In our mind, we knew we were gonna come back. We just had to play our game and not do anything out the ordinary. Stop the run, stop big plays and stuff like that. We gave a couple of plays to them throughout the entire game. But once we started playing our game and stopped the mistakes then we were good.
“I think we were trying to think too much and not just understanding just playing football. It came from pass rush, we weren’t getting back there like we wanted to. We wanted to get the push up front like we wanted to. Secondary had to tackle, make the big plays. And jump balls, had to win those. Just plays, we could control, mental things we already went over. Mental things that we already went over, we just had to put it to play in the game.”
After Franks was carted off the field, Kyle Trask lined up behind center and proceeded to go 9-13 for 126 yards while adding a four yard touchdown on the ground. It was fitting that on the week former Gator great Neiron Ball passed away to a burgeoning brain disease, Trask scored in his No. 11.
While Trask he won’t get credit in the boxscore, it was a heads up move from Trask that gave running back Lamical Perine touchdown in the 4th quarter to make it a one possession game.
As Trask was being tackled, he flipped the ball up to Perine who was running out on an option. Since the running back had not been apart of the play, he was uncovered and walked the eight yards into the endzone untouched.
“Yea, that was definitely improvisation,” grinned Trask.
“It was just an option to the left and he was playing between us and I tried to cut it up in between, but he crashed down on it and I managed to get it out to Perine…It is split second and I was trying to knife it up in there. And they just weren’t having that one so I managed to get it out to Perine and good thing I did because he’s pretty dangerous with the ball in his hands.”
As the Florida Gators head home with an as yet unblemished record, their new leader Kyle Trask is bringing a message with his team. Don’t doubt the Gators and don’t count them out.
“I don’t want people to think like you know, we’re just gonna wait till we get down nothing like that. But I really think what it is, is you know, we just have a lot of resiliency in our team and we know how to finish games and we all came together. It was a tough fought game. This is the SEC, nothing comes easy, especially on the road and I was really proud of our team how we came together in the second half to really finish this game the right way and go 1-0 in the SEC.”