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Florida 37, Vanderbilt 27: Gators get up and go after slow start on road

The Gators trailed by 18 early on. The game ended as most Florida trips to Nashville have of late, though.

Florida v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The Florida Gators and Vanderbilt Commodores staged one of the weirdest halves of college football that has been played early on in Saturday’s meeting in Nashville.

From halftime onward, it was a lot more like a typical game between the Gators and Commodores — and the Gators ended up on top.

Behind sterling efforts from running backs Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett and a career day from Feleipe Franks, Florida rallied from a 21-3 hole and scored 21 second-half points to get a 34-27 win over Vanderbilt.

Perine ran for 118 yards and a touchdown and had another 93 yards as a receiver, while Scarlett ran for 113 yards and a touchdown of his own, marking the first time that two Gators have run for more than 100 yards in one game in two years. And Florida nearly topped 300 yards on the ground, settling for a season-high 293 on 62 carries.

Florida relied on that run game to make its comeback on the afternoon — Scarlett’s 48-yard touchdown run to begin the fourth quarter put the Gators ahead for the first time and for good — but Franks and the Gators’ receivers had something to do with it, too. Franks threw for a career-high 284 yards and hit Van Jefferson and Freddie Swain for second-half touchdowns, rebounding from a tipped pick on Florida’s first offensive drive and a fumble on a keeper to have one of his finest games as the Gators’ starting quarterback.

And Florida needed a complete performance from its offense to come back after the disastrous start to the game.

Florida had forced a three-and-out and driven down to near Vandy’s goal line before that Franks pick, which initially got called a 99-yard pick-six before replay revealed Joejuan Williams was obviously down before he made his runback.

But that pick seemed to rock the Gators onto their heels, and Vanderbilt took advantage. The Commodores unspooled a touchdown drive after that pick, answered a 16-play Florida drive that ended with a field goal with a 75-yard touchdown on a screen pass, and picked up Franks’s fumble — which bounced (and was bumbled) about 30 yards toward Florida’s end zone, including a five-yard roll that occured within a foot of the sideline and without rolling out of bounds to give the ball back to the Gators — to get a short field that they converted into a four-play touchdown drive.

Florida, though, would have a response to that 21-3 hole, on a touchdown drive featuring five touches for Perine.

And the Gators would not be shaken by a dramatic moment at the end of the first half.

After a massive block by James Houston IV that was flagged for targeting (along with a block in the back by Jefferson) wiped out a good Swain punt return and resulted in an injury to Vandy’s Dare Odeyingbo, Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason and Florida’s Dan Mullen and Todd Grantham were visibly animated and exchanged words, leading both benches to nearly clear as players on both sides rushed onto the field.

Though those benches clearing — and the Mason vs. Mullen and/or Grantham exchange — led only to shouting (quite probably of a profane variety), referees would assess offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on both entire teams, with a second one on Vosean Joseph, previously flagged for a suplex of a Vandy runner, getting him ejected for the rest of the game.

But Florida followed that with a 75-yard drive keyed by a 63-yard catch-and-run for Perine that led to the second of Evan McPherson’s three field goals on the day.

And the Gators would erase most of the 21-13 halftime deficit on a Franks dart to Jefferson, who turned a slant into six points midway through the first quarter, and take the lead on Scarlett’s scamper — the first play of the fourth period, and the finisher on a drive that was kept alive by Tommy Townsend keeping the ball on a fake punt and running for 18 yards up the middle.

With Florida’s defense stiffening — the Commodores managed only two fourth field goals after halftime — the Gators’ offense had done enough by then to wrest back control of the game.

And when Franks kneeled out the final possession following a Chauncey Gardner-Johnson interception, the Gators moved to 6-1 on the year and 4-1 in SEC play — a spot from which they have a lot of control over how great their surprising season may yet be.