For 55 minutes on Saturday night it looked like the Florida Gators dominance over the Tennessee Volunteers would end at a decade.
When Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley kicked a field goal 11:07 left in the third quarter the Tennessee Volunteer lead was extended to 20-7 and many fans decked out in blue looked for the red exits signs.
Florida was forced to punt on their ensuing drive but the defense bailed them out. Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs scrambled to his right and Bryan Cox disengaged from his blocker, had his hand graze off of Dobbs’ shoulder pads and right down on to the ball, relinquishing Dobbs of possession before wrapping his big paw around the loose football.
In years past, Florida would likely have found a way to put on a drive that starter at their opponent’s 29-yard line. Instead, the Gators chose to go for it on fourth down — one of five attempts on the night — and they converted when Will Grier found Brandon Powell for 21 yards down to the Tennessee four. Kelvin Taylor took the next snap into the end zone for his second score of the game and the game was close again, 20-14. The drives between the two Taylor touchdowns went as such; punt, punt, punt, punt, interception, halftime, and punt.
The Swamp, which had been taken completely out of the game due to an absurd amount of timeouts, commercial breaks and a sizeable deficit, came alive. The Florida defense fed off of that energy and started to clamp down on a Tennessee offense that had been running wild all night.
“We used the energy from the crowd,” junior linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “It’s crazy. You won’t believe it unless you are out there. You will not believe how much the crowd affected us.”
The defense forced a three-and-out before the offense returned the favor with one of their own. Momentum began to shift back toward Tennessee and the Volunteers began what would turn into a devastating drive that leaked into the fourth quarter.
Tennessee’s 16-play, 70-yard drive that chewed up 7:26 on the clock was finished by Jalen Hurd’s 10-yard touchdown run. Hurd finished the night with 28 carries for 102 yards and two touchdowns. In a puzzling decision, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones elected not to go for two, which would have put his team up two scores, settling for a field goal and a 13-point edge.
The drive once again silenced the crowd.
The offense needed to do something and with just 10:19 left in the game, they needed to do it quickly.
Well, we thought they needed to do it in a hurry. Florida seemed to be content plodding down the field, taking their time to get play calls in and seemingly waste time not trying to get out of bounds.
So they marched. Slowly and methodically, twice electing to go for it on fourth down, both times picking up the yardage necessary.
When Brandon Powell found the end zone Ben Hill Griffin Stadium erupted. Will Grier and the offense had just led a 17-play, 86-yard scoring drive to pull within six.
Four minutes and nine seconds were left on the clock. Hey defense, Gator Nation is calling on you again.
Three plays, no yards and just 1:51 later Tennessee was forced to punt. There was hope in the stadium. Ben Hill Griffin was rocking and swaying like it was 2008 and the belief and hope that McElwain’s boys would pull this thing off was on the heart of more than 90,000 in attendance.
Kelvin Taylor caught a screen pass for four yards but was tackled in bounds.
Back-to-back incompletions to Demarcus Robinson stopped the clock but left Florida with a fourth down. They had already converted on four separate fourth down attempts, surely their luck had run out.
Grier found Antonio Callaway for the first down and the freshman cut to his left and up field. A block by Brandon Powell sprung him and Callaway raced down the west sideline uncontested into the end zone.
The unthinkable had just happened. Last year no way the Gators overcome a 20-7 second half deficit. That team would have packed it in and watched things get ugly.
“Everyone on the sideline’s demeanor changed when they went up two touchdowns in the second half,” Davis said. “But we came back and we just keep fighting. We keep fighting.”
Hey defense, it’s Gator Nation again. I know we just called and asked for that favor two minutes ago but could ya, do ya think maybe you could show up just one more time?
Dobbs found a receiver for 10 yards. First down. False start, push them back. Another first down, a 19-yard reception by Alvin Kamara pushed the ball to Florida’s 44.
This is when hope starts to escape. In every groan from those in attendance, fate starts to sink in. Dobbs rushes for eight yards and Marcus Maye pokes the ball out but it rolls harmlessly out of bounds.
Another sigh, a little more hope escapes.
Another first down on a four yard connection from Dobbs to Wolf but the vols don’t get out of bounds. Rather than calling a time out they rush to the line.
Tick tick tick.
Dobbs gets under center and spikes the ball. The Gators signal that it’s against Tennessee and with just three second left in the game the sideline erupts, players rush out to the field swinging their helmets wildly.
That timeout that Tennessee didn’t use.
The penalty should have come with a 10 second runoff of the clock but Tennessee’s timeout stopped that and set up a field goal try to end a decade of despair.
Medley lined up for a long one. McElwain standing close enough to one of the side judges it’s a good thing he had gum in his mouth. Would he call the timeout and ice the kicker?
The kick never had a chance, wide right, but McElwain called timeout.
The do over was closer, close enough that Tennessee’s bench cleared in a premature celebration. When the referees waved the kick off as no good the moment was surreal.
What had we just witnessed?
That was the feeling that Jim McElwain had. Even after he celebrated with his football team in the locker room the play, the game, the moment still hadn’t sunk in.
“They played their hearts out for the Gators and the fans and the previous Gators,” McElwain said. “You just don’t lose to Tennessee and they didn’t.”
“It was pretty cool, wasn’t it?”