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Vanderbilt 31, Florida 24: Gators chomp off own limbs in stunning upset

A flurry of unforced errors left Florida with a deflating loss.

NCAA Football: Florida at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Given one last improbable — or unfathomable — chance to win a game they had not seized at any point on a chilly afternoon in Nashville, the Florida Gators snapped a Hail Mary try that was only possible because of seconds and a stopped clock gifted to them by gross incompetence from an officiating team that had offered plenty of it.

Anthony Richardson threw the pass well out of the back of the end zone.

And so ended a 31-24 loss to Vanderbilt — Florida’s second overall and first in Nashville since 1988 — that was unquestionably the Gators’ worst effort of the season.

What mistakes did Florida make? The easier question might invert the idea. Florida sputtered in the red zone, muffed a punt for a touchdown, extended multiple Vanderbilt drives with baffling penalties, and generally looked to be fully outplayed and outcoached by the Commodores, who won just their second SEC game in their last 28 attempts.

And on a day when they could scarcely do anything right beyond a passing game that put up gaudy, deceptive numbers — 400 yards on the dot and three scores for Richardson, 165 receiving yards and two touchdowns for Daejon Reynolds, 106 yards for a returning Justin Shorter — Florida needed way more breaks than it got.

Consider just these three breaks:

  • A botched snap cost 18 yards on Florida’s first offensive drive, but a timely third-and-25 conversion to Ricky Pearsall atoned for it immediately — then, minutes later, Pearsall left the game early due to injury.
  • Ventrell Miller played his usual inspired football for Florida’s defense, helping force a fumble on a fourth down by Vandy, but was ejected in the second half after a targeting penalty that will probably keep him out of next week’ showdown with Florida State.
  • Richardson and his receivers were most in sync in the sense that they paired their errors, with Richardson spraying a number of inaccurate throws and multiple receivers dropping seemingly easy catches — and, on a momentous play late in the third quarter, a drop on a ball Richardson barely got to Thai Chaikhaio-Bowman turned into an unbelievable interception, as Chaikhaio-Bowman’s layout for the ball sent it into a Vandy defender’s arms.

The random pendulum swing of penalties from a flag-happy crew, too, seemed to skew Vandy’s way, even beyond Florida getting whistled for seven flags costing 80 yards. Miller was clearly shoved by the eventual receiver on one of the Commodores’ touchdowns, while Kamari Wilson failed to make a tackle on another partly because he was shoved to the ground by a non-targeted receiver while the ball was in the air.

Florida, meanwhile, got penalized for holding on a third down on which pressure forced Vanderbilt QB Mike Wright to send a ball sailing well out of bounds.

But if Florida lost on the margins, it also did so on the merits.

Vanderbilt’s 175-to-45 edge in rushing yards was a shocking result for a Florida team that had averaged better than 300 yards on the ground over its last two games; Vandy went 7-for-14 on third down to Florida’s 4-for-15, though the Gators did go 3-for-4 on fourth down; Florida had to settle for two fieldd goals in the first half, while Vandy didn’t settle for one until the fourth quarter; the Gators missed out on five points after touchdowns, twice failing on two-point tries and then shanking a kick well left of the goalposts with a chance to pull within six of the ‘Dores.

And then there was the mistake that change the game most: Jason Marshall Jr. muffing a punt that Vanderbilt recovered for a touchdown to forever get beyond range of a Florida field goal tying or taking the lead.

Marshall was likely only on the field because usual punt returner Xzavier Henderson missed the entire game due to injury and backup Pearsall went out early. But he drifted back within the Florida 10 on a punt that looked like it would bound into the end zone if left untouched, tried to make an ungainly catch at his shoulder, and could not get on top of the ball as it bounced away from him.

Marshall would get a chance for redemption and take it later in the game, beautifully tracking and undercutting an ill-advised Wright throw to give Florida a spark of life.

Florida itself stamped it out, going four-and-out on the subsequent drive, with Richardson — who had throw two dimes on previous fourth downs — overthrowing his open intended receiver considerably.

Par for the course — or maybe bogey.

And with a Florida State team that looks revved up to a frightening degree under Mike Norvell awaiting the Gators in Tallahassee next week, finding a way to clean up these errors — or mitigate their effect, if they are inevitable — may be Florida’s only chance of avoiding a scoreboard that looks like a hacker’s scorecard.