By FRANZ BEARD
GatorBait Senior Columnist
On a night when Florida made enough mistakes to lose a football game that it eventually won, the Miami Hurricanes made even more mistakes and still had a chance to win up until the final 12 seconds. In the middle of all this turmoil, the kind where you knew that one mistake was going to prove more critical than all the others, Florida coach Dan Mullen went gutsy and channeled his inner Les Miles (Remember Baton Rouge in 2007?).
Four times in Florida's 24-20 win over the Hurricanes at Camping World Stadium Saturday night, Mullen elected to gamble on fourth down (Les was 5-5 against the Gators in 2007). On each occasion, the Gators converted the first down. Two of the fourth down gambles resulted in 10 critical points.
“There are situations within the game that we felt we had a good play call and we had veteran players so I didn't mind putting the ball in their hands to go make those plays,” Mullen said during his post game press conference. The four players Mullen entrusted to get the job done were senior punter Tommy Townsend, junior wide receiver Kadarius Toney, junior quarterback Feleipe Franks and junior wide receiver Trevon Grimes.
In sequence, here are the four fourth down gambles:
Following the first gamble – a 6-yard fake punt by senior Tommy Townsend on the Gators' first possession – Feleipe Franks threw a bubble screen to Kadarius Toney, who was sprung by a great block by senior wide receiver Van Jefferson, for a 66-yard touchdown that gave Florida a 7-3 lead.
Toney converted Mullen's second fourth down gamble on a 3-yard jet sweep at the UF 49 that jump started a drive that seemed destined for a touchdown until Franks and Lamical Perine fumbled an exchange at the Miami seven.
Although the third gamble – it happened on the same drive as Toney's 3-yard jet sweep – got the first down when Franks powered his way for two yards to the Miami 22, Mullen might wish he had that one back. He could have easily sent in Evan McPherson, who was 17-19 on field goals last year and 1-1 Saturday night, but he was looking for the TD that would give UF a commanding 14-3 lead. Instead of the three that would have extended Florida's lead to 10-3, the Gators fumbled the ball away at the Miami seven four plays later when Franks and Lamical Perine blew an exchange on an RPO. That was the first of three Florida turnovers on the night. Given the fact the Hurricanes had the ball with a chance to win with seconds left in the game, the Gators were extremely fortunate the decision to pass up the field goal didn't come back to haunt them.
The fourth – and final – gamble paid off because this time Mullen sent in McPherson to kick the field goal. This was in the third quarter with the Gators trailing Miami 13-7 and it came on a fourth and five at the Miami 37. On the play, Franks rolled left and made an under pressure throw to Trevon Grimes on the east sideline for a 10-yard gain and the first down at the Miami 27. On the next play, Franks and tight end Kyle Pitts connected on an 18-yard pass to the Miami nine but that's where the drive stalled out. This time, when fourth down came along Mullen didn't hesitate. McPherson went in, drilled the 27-yarder to cut the Miami lead to 13-10 with 6:30 remaining in the third quarter.
Of the four fourth down gambles, two led to 10 points. The other two should have gotten the Gators at least a field goal. Even though Mullen gave up one probable sure three on the third of his gambles, in a worst case scenario the Gators would have still given McPherson a chip shot even if they had simply hung onto the ball.
Mullen obviously isn't afraid to take chances and judging by the certainty in which he made his decisions the play calls are well-rehearsed.
“It may have seemed high risk but we felt pretty good with those calls and there wasn't any question or doubt,” he said.
Interestingly, Mullen had a chance to go for a fifth fourth down conversion late in the third quarter but this time he elected to punt. Facing fourth and one from the Florida 42, Mullen surprised the crowd of 66,543 when he had Townsend punt the football. Burned once, Miami set up a picket fence defense to ensure Townsend would have nowhere to go if he took off running but in doing so, the Hurricanes didn't even get token pressure. Townsend leisurely kicked a high floater that Miami's Jeff Thomas fumbled at the UM 11.
This time, yet another veteran that Mullen trusts came through. Senior wide receiver Van Jefferson was on the football almost before Thomas could react to give the Gators the possession. Three plays later, Franks and Perine connected for an 8-yard touchdown pass with 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter that gave the Gators a 17-13 lead.
"Our starting receiver made one of the biggest plays of the game,” Mullen said. “It was our leading returning receiver and this is his first time playing on punt because this is a veteran group that really understands what it takes to win football games and they've bought into that and that's not only going to help us here now but I'm sure it's going to help those guys play football for a very long time.”
So maybe it wasn't a pretty win but it was definitely gutsy. Mullen acted like it was business as usual. Fortunately for the Gators, business as usual got the results Florida needed to avoid starting the season 0-1.