NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Florida Gators walked past a few dozen orange and blue clad fans and into an empty Vanderbilt Stadium. It was cold, overcast and barely 30,000 people would partially fill the smallest stadium in the SEC.
Florida was coming off of three emotional wins and two hard fought, physical victories. They had a bye week to look forward to and an inferior opponent. They played like a team that had that though all week long. During his radio show on Thursday before the game Dan Mullen warned that the team hadn’t had a great week of practice and it showed.
“We don’t really follow our plan to win,” Dan Mullen would say after the game.
That’s an understatement.
Florida’s defense forced a three-and-out to start the game. The offense took over and quickly moved the ball 60 yards on eight plays all the way down to the Vanderbilt five. Feleipe Franks tried to throw a quick slant to Van Jefferson but the ball was tipped and intercepted.
The Commodores promptly drove down the field 98 yards for a touchdown. The score held into the second quarter before Evan McPherson kicked a field goal. One play later Vanderbilt dialed up a screen play that went 75 yards for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead.
“They had a pick, they picked the linebacker, well they picked me. The over route, they had our DB rolling with the over route, too, it was like a two-for-one then they slipped out. It was a great play call. Good scheme on that play.”
Florida and Vanderbilt traded punts before Feleipe Franks’ second turnover of the game, this one a fumble. For the first time this season Franks came back to the sideline with his head down. Vanderbilt turned the fumble and short field into seven points and Franks was pouting.
“After the one turnover he got moody and Brian screamed at him,” Mullen said of Franks. “And that was about it, you know. And then he, he’ll tell you, he was moody. And then he just stopped.”
Florida responded with a 12 play, 75-yard touchdown drive to trim the Vanderbilt lead to 21-10 but the game was still in Vanderbilt’s control.
Florida’s defense forced a three-and-out following the touchdown and then the game was flipped on its head.
James Houston leveled Dayo Obeyingbo but was called for targeting. Words were traded between players, then that turned to player and coaches trading barbs as Vanderbilt’s coaches were looking over the shoulder as trainers tended to Obeyingbo. In the blink of an eye the entire Vanderbilt team was near midfield jawing at Florida. The Gators left their bench but were held back by graduate assistants and coaches. Dan Mullen and Todd Grantham shouted expletives at Mason and the referees.
When it was all finished Houston was ejected for targeting and the referees gave everybody on the field, more than 130 players unsportsmanlike penalties for leaving the sideline. That was Vosean Joseph’s second such penalty, which meant he too would be ejected.
It was the fire that Florida needed, the poke that would wake them from this Nashville nap.
“That kinda motivated us, especially coach Savage and all the strength coaches. They were turning us up. So that kinda motivates us a little bit more,” receiver Van Jefferson said. “They were just saying, you know, ‘Hey, they wanna disrespect you guys. So just go out there and take it over now.’ So that’s what we did.”
That’s exactly what it did. Florida marched down the field and added a field goal to make the score 21-13 at halftime.
The Gators’ defense came back out in the second half and clamped down. They allowed just 138 yards, 13 on the ground and just six points to Vanderbilt after the break. They held the ‘Dores to just 25% (2-8) on third down and created their only turnover.
Florida’s offense posted 301 second half yards including 203 on the ground. At one point they scored 24 unanswered points, taking the lead on a Jordan Scarlett 48-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Florida has continually showed, week in and week out mental toughness that simply wasn’t there in 2017. It can’t be faked or flipped on and off. It was earned through a demanding off season program and the Gators wouldn’t have walked out of the stadium on Saturday with a 37-27 win and wouldn’t be 6-1 on the season without that mental fortitude.