As always, the Sunday Rundown is intentionally written with first-take thoughts on a Florida game, without a second look at tape. For Florida's thrilling 28-27 win over Tennessee, I was watching in real time on CBS in glorious HD, and taking occasional peeks at the network's all-22 online stream.
How Florida Won
The Stunner in The Swamp
You remember Stone Cold Steve Austin, right? And that Stone Cold Stunner he used to put away many of his foes? That's what Florida did, in a sense, on Saturday.
Florida was the face in peril for most of this game, with an early 7-0 lead vaporized by a trick play and a 13-point hole in the fourth quarter looking like a death sentence. But Florida rallied back, hit a few big moves on a long, slow touchdown drive, and then put itself in position to apply a finisher with a defensive stop.
On a fourth and 14, with 1:39 to play, and 63 yards between them and six game-tying points, Florida hit The Stunner in The Swamp, with Will Grier finding Antonio Callaway with a strike, and Callaway turning upfield (and being sprung by a brilliant Brandon Powell block) to race the rest of the way for a game-swinging score.
Jorge Powell's extra point was the game-winning one. It was a point that Tennessee could've had, maybe should've had, by going for two to go up 14 after its final touchdown of the day. One might imagine Austin signifying that single point with a single finger on each hand, as he did so often.
For sure, though, there is this: Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass.
The Swamp 4:14 says Florida just did the same to Tennessee.
The play, the call, and the crowd
This is one of just three game-winning touchdowns in the final two minutes of regulation in The Swamp that I can remember. One was scored by Fred Taylor in a game so widely recognized as the greatest game ever played in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium that it goes by The Greatest Game Ever Played in The Swamp. One was scored by Jelani Jenkins against Louisiana in 2012 — and it came after another game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes — in a game that I correctly assessed as one those in attendance would forever remember, while those who weren't would soon forget.
This one, to beat Tennessee and preserve a mind-boggling winning streak over a program with twice as many national titles as Florida has, was the third. And as plays go, it was the greatest, a totally unexpected lightning strike on offense (rather than special teams) and a long play that spawned a signature Mick Hubert call and actually scored a touchdown. (If only Jacquez Green had scored, right?)
The crowd sounds as if it knows well that it experienced history in that moment on this day, roaring like I've heard it only once before — for the 'Cock Block in 2006 — as Callaway streaks down the sideline. And, just like that, the moment is sealed in memory.
10 years from now, I suspect, most Florida fans won't remember that Tennessee drove down the field with startling ease after Grier found Callaway, that the Vols maybe got screwed on an indecisive referee not knowing whether a player had gone out of bounds and a penalty that came about partly as a result of it. But almost every one that was alive for this game will remember that moment.
The fight in Florida
I tweeted this after Florida's fourth fourth-down conversion of the day.
This team ain't good. But it also ain't good at going gently.— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) September 26, 2015
Then the Gators scored to cut Tennessee's lead to six. Then they got a stop. Then they scored again, on their fifth fourth-down conversion of the day and 10th of the year. Then they did just enough to hold off the Vols' final drive.
I thought one of the great shames of the Will Muschamp Era was fans mistaking a lack of success for a lack of heart and hard work by Florida's players. Florida played hard under Muschamp, especially on defense, even in doomed efforts. Those two games in which Florida lost despite holding an opponent under 100 yards? Florida's defense played like maniacs against Florida State in 2011 and Missouri in 2014 despite its offense almost trying to give those games away. That loss to FSU in 2014, in which the Gators harrassed Jameis Winston into the worst game of his collegiate career? That wasn't dumb luck. Even Florida's crushing, embarrassing loss to Georgia Southern wasn't really for lack of effort: The Gators had walk-ons and freshmen playing until blood and sweat mixed in that game, fighting to avoid infamy.
There wasn't one game when I thought to myself "Okay, Florida has finally quit on Muschamp," and I think of that as a credit to the character of the players in his program.
And the funny thing is that most of those players are still in the program, still playing for Florida. Jarrad Davis remembers that Georgia Southern loss. Brandon Powell starred in the 2014 FSU game. Trip Thurman was around for FSU in 2011. And while it was new blood that made the plays to win this game, Florida's spine is still made of resilient players who suffered defeats without losing their heart.
Those players got their signature win and their lasting memory on Saturday.
Jim McElwain, reluctant gambler
Two of Florida's five fourth-down conversions on Saturday came on plays that followed Tennessee timeouts, plays that followed McElwain sending out a kicking team at first, only to change his mind once Butch Jones gave him time to think. The first such conversion only prolonged a drive that eventually turned into a punt, but the second got Florida to within six points, rather than within 10, in a game that was eventually won by a single point.
Maybe McElwain should accept aggressiveness as his (and Florida's) default.
The 10-for-10 mark on fourth downs isn't just unsustainable; it's so incredible as to be flabbergasting. One team, of the hundreds and hundreds of discrete teams in college football, has converted every fourth down in a season since 2008, and Notre Dame had just seven fourth-down conversions in 2011; Florida's 10 are over four games, and are twice as many as the five accrued by Miami, the next-closest team still perfect on fourth down in 2015.
Of course, while I couldn't think of ever seeing a 5-for-5 night on fourth down before, that carries a caveat. LSU's magical night in its 2007 win over Florida is widely regarded as the gold standard for such games, and the Tigers were indeed 5-for-5 on that night.
But I spent that night with a girlfriend at her private college in New England, and in a dorm with one TV that was being used to watch something wholly different from that game. So, no, I haven't seen sorcery like the sort Florida had on its side on Saturday.
The kids are all right
Florida's final offensive play of this game, its most significant win since 2012, featured a redshirt freshman throwing a strike to a true freshman while a true sophomore threw the springing block.
Grier wasn't great all day, despite his phenomenal performance on fourth downs and in the fourth quarter. Callaway still has a lot of room to improve as both a receiver and a playmaker — he dances a bit too much, generally, though the agility and willingness to cut back is what made that play a touchdown. Powell is what he is, an undersized dynamo with more quickness than speed, and he's not going to top Chris Rainey or Jeff Demps in Florida's annals of quarkbackery except in terms of heart.
They still combined for one of the greatest plays in Florida history. And Florida will have them all for at least one more year, and possibly three. We can't see all of the Gators' future, but some of the flashes are blindingly bright.
If not now for Tennessee, when?
I know we wrote and thought similar things for and about Kentucky last week, but the question that lingered after the Gators held on for a 14-9 win in Lexington is even more relevant today: If not now, when on earth is Tennessee going to snap its losing streak against Florida?
The Vols had the Gators dead to rights in this game. Tennessee went up 27-14 with 10:19 to play, and had just comprehensively broken the Gators' defense with a 16-play, 70-yard drive that drained more than seven minutes off the game clock. Florida then spent four minutes of its next drive just getting to the Tennessee 45, before throwing things into gear by having Grier throw on the next nine plays. The touchdown to cap that drive came with 4:09 to play, long enough for hope to stay alive, but not nearly so long that Tennessee couldn't just run the clock out.
So, instead, the Vols ran the ball on their next three snaps, including on a third and six that could have decided the game. And the effort on that possession, and especially on that third and six, looked like that of a team that was just trying to hold on, rather than one that had rightly dominated this game, and leaned on a tired Florida defense.
But after punting back to Florida, Tennessee stymied the first three plays of the Gators' game-winning drive. Jalen Reeves-Maybin made a phenomenal read of a screen to Kelvin Taylor, and dropped him for a four-yard loss on first down. Demarcus Robinson dropped a sure catch on second down while turning his head to look upfield. And Derek Barnett pressured Grier into an incompletion on third down.
On fourth and 14, needing only to stop Florida from gaining more than 13 yards to finally emerge from a decade of futility against the Gators, Tennessee gave up 63, and six points.
And this game.
To their credit, the Vols did drive well to set up Aaron Medley's field goal miss on their final offensive drive, with Joshua Dobbs throwing for 23 of his 83 passing yards of the day on those final plays, but this one slipped from a firm Tennessee grasp, and the Vols have now blown leads of seven, seven, nine, and 13 points against Florida in the last four years — doing so to four different quarterbacks and three different offensive coordinators, while two different coaches have helmed the Vols.
"If not now, when?" is a question that Tennessee has no answers to on this sad Sunday. And Florida doesn't need to answer it. That's definitely a good thing.
Callaway, take us away
Last week, Florida's offense averaged 21.5 yards per Antonio Callaway touch. This week, Florida's offense averaged 22.4 yards per Antonio Callaway touch.
KEEP DOING THAT.
Taylor gets untracked
Kelvin Taylor had maybe his best day as a Gator on Saturday, and played a rare game in which I wanted him to get the ball more, not less. He was the only Florida running back to get a carry, and toted the rock 19 times for 104 yards and two touchdowns; even subtracting his 47-yard run in the first quarter, a play he made by slipping out of a tackle in the hole and putting a defender in traction in the secondary, that's 18 carries for 57 yards and two scores, and while the yards per carry aren't gaudy without the big run, the two touchdowns are very good to have.
The assets that makes Taylor better than Florida's freshmen, Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite, are his vision and his feet, both the sorts of things that seem more innate than imbued, and he is capable of doing tremendous things with both, as long as he applies them to getting north and south. When he doesn't — when he dances, or tries that spin move that has yet to work — Taylor is capable of turning one-yard gains into five-yard losses, something I trust both freshmen not to do.
Taylor only did that once that I can recall against Tennessee, instead making the most of his (often bad) blocking and taking what was available. And if he can do that for the rest of the year, he'll be Florida's featured back.
Both Good and Bad
The mercurial Will Grier
The Florida fan who tells you this Sunday that she wasn't pining for Treon Harris in the third and fourth quarters of yesterday's game is probably a liar. Do not believe her.
After all, she was right to want someone other than Grier at quarterback for most of this game; we all were. What Grier did for the first 45 minutes begged for a benching.
Grier was bad for the first three quarters of play, failing to get his feet set and double-clutching on throws while also breaking the pocket just a bit too often against a defense better-equipped to punish him for scurrying than any Florida had previously faced this year. He airmailed a pick right to a Tennessee safety. He missed big plays. He missed easy throws. He was, generally, having a forgettable performance that would have produced justified calls for Harris to play next weekend.
And then Grier had the best fourth quarter by a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow helped his Gators win the 2008 SEC Championship Game. That's not hyperbole, either; sure, it's made easier to declare by lowered standards in recent years, but Grier did throw for 141 yards and two touchdowns while rallying Florida from a 13-point deficit. And he wasn't just dumping the ball off: He made difficult throws to the right spots, and kept enough of his calm to stay in the pocket and find receivers.
Last week, I wrote of Grier that "The problem is that he wasn't much more than a talented but inconsistent young quarterback against Kentucky." Against Tennessee, he was the best a talented but inconsistent young quarterback can be, and conveniently saved his best for when Florida needed it most.
No one's going to be calling for Grier to be replaced this week, not after that fourth quarter — though some of us might still be intrigued by a two-quarterback system. And Grier's unlikely to be as good as he was in that fourth quarter in any other quarter this year, much less for a whole game.
But we have seen that now. We know Will Grier can do that now. And it's been a long time since a Florida quarterback even had the potential for that.
Florida's offensive line grew up a bit
Florida played three true freshmen on its offensive line at stages of this game, and Grier didn't die. Florida's Mason Halter let Barnett come around end for a crucial hurry on the penultimate offensive snap and then walled off his man on the fourth-down touchdown. Florida gave up three sacks, but they came on 53 dropbacks.
This is not a good line: It is an average one, capable of good stretches of play. And I'm not convinced that seasoning for its fresh faces will really do all that much to make it better, especially given that the players on the unit that should be better because of seasoning are not, not really.
But it was better against Tennessee — a better team than it had previously faced — than it was in any other game this year, and has done enough to not wreck Florida's season with one third of that season complete. And that was all many were hoping for when this fall began. Points for meeting low expectations!
Florida was nearly haunted by missed tackles
The good thing about how Florida tackles is that five or more defenders are often rushing to the ball to deliver a jarring hit. The bad thing about how Florida tackles is that five or more defenders are often rushing to the ball to deliver a jarring hit.
That's an oversimplification, of course, but Florida was exposed in this game (and last week against Kentucky) as a team that is thirstier for big plays than sound ones on defense, and it let multiple negative plays that could have been game-changers evaporate because of an inability to bring down Tennessee runners. It wasn't just Jalen Hurd, a load and a half, breaking the tackles, either: Alvin Kamara absorbed some hits and kept trucking, and Dobbs slipped a few embraces of his own. Florida's linebackers, especially, will have a whole lot of film to watch on Monday.
The best thing that happened for Florida on special teams in this game was Jorge Powell saving a touchdown by throwing his body into a tackle of Evan Berry. Really.
Yes, Johnny Townsend was really good as a punter, but he was booming balls rather than burying the Vols as Kyle Christy and Chas Henry used to; his efficiency left something to be desired, though his leg was a cannon all evening. Florida's punt return game didn't do much, its kick return team remains a disaster, and its punt and kick coverage were so-so at best. It's probably a good thing Powell didn't have to kick a field goal, because that might have been another error to add to the list, but he did at least boot a ball out of the end zone.
Basically, Florida's special teams are going to cost this team a game, I think. It wasn't this one. But there are eight (maybe nine?) more games this year.
The SEC needs to figure out its refereeing
Obligatory preface: Nothing the refs did in this game ultimately prevented Florida from winning it. And these refs were generally good, apart from the missed holds on both teams that just seem to be part of the game in 2015.
But: Florida should have gotten a fumble in the first half on a play that was not stopped for a review. Butch Jones should not have had to call a timeout to get a sideline tightrope act by Jake McGee reviewed in the second quarter. The refs should have made some sort of better indication to the crowd as to what on earth happened on the fumble by Dobbs in the second quarter. And a confusing signal that seemed to combine the "the clock is running" and "he's out of bounds" calls on Tennessee's final non-kick offensive play helped lead to some confusion that produced an illegal substitution penalty on the Vols.
As I will say whenever I criticize refs here, I have sympathy for them, because they are part-timers in what should unequivocally be a full-time job, but, again, their responsibilities are to a) control the game on the field and b) make the vast majority of the calls correctly. Only the failure to review that first fumble was truly a blown call (again, apart from missed holding penalties), but fans at home and in the stands should not be perplexed as to referees' decisions.
It's not that hard to go slow and explain calls in an effort to get them right — and if refs and broadcasters are going to slow games to a crawl, anyway, there's no reason not to show their work.
You know, some people left that game
One friend of the blog — one who might just write about this experience in this space — had to leave the game early because she fell ill. That's excusable and unfortunate.
Another friend of the blog related that he had family members walk from The Swamp to their downtown hotel, missing essentially all of Florida's rally. Surely, thousands of other Florida fans left when Tennessee scored to go up 27-13. That's lamentable, and hilariously poor judgment.
Some of those fans will be telling their kids (and grandkids) that they were there for this game — meaning that rally, that play, that missed field goal — in 2035, 2055, and so on.
They will be lying.
And that's why you always, always, always stay if you can.