September 17, 2017
Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks showed off his arm strength on a 63-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland and recharged a team and fan base in need of some fresh juice.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – They will talk about what happened early Saturday night at The Swamp for years and years. Like a fine wine, the stories will only get better over time.
“I’ve got some burned images in my mind that I will carry with me the rest of my life,” Gators head coach Jim McElwain said.
A half-hour after Florida’s heart-stopping 26-20 win over Tennessee, the winning score on a 63-yard Hail Mary from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland – Franks threw the ball 70 yards in the air, but legend will have in 20 years that it was at least 80 yards – the celebration inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium had finally subsided.
Franks still needed time to process the ending to his first career home start and only second of his young career.
“I love to throw the ball deep. It was kind of an in-the-moment thing,” said Franks. “It’s going to sink in at one point. I’m going to sit back and realize what just happened.”
Inside UF’s locker room, the ecstasy of one of the great finishes in program history began to quiet. Real talk commenced as offensive linemen Martez Ivey and T.J. McCoy showered and prepared to talk to the media.
For three quarters, all the Gators could muster was a pair of Eddy Pineiro field goals. Still, that was enough since all the Volunteers managed to produce was one field goal. The game resembled a third-grader’s art project more than a Monet.
The Gators had endured a difficult start to the season, first a disheartening loss to Michigan in the season opener in which the offense failed to produce a touchdown, and then the cancellation of their scheduled home opener due to Hurricane Irma. In addition, the Gators are still without nine suspended players, including star receiver Antonio Callaway.
If that was not enough, they stepped onto the field Saturday staring at the potential of an 0-2 start for the first time since Doug Dickey’s second season as head coach 46 years ago. That’s not the start anyone envisioned a few weeks ago as Florida opened preseason camp for the start of Jim McElwain‘s third season leading the program.
But it was reality and created an unhealthy perception around the team. And then Franks dropped back, avoided the rush and rolled out to his right before launching a pass that will live in Florida lore forever.
“It was electric,” linebacker David Reese said.
Said Ivey: “It was on the money.”
As Ivey and McCoy talked moments later in the locker room, they focused on what the play could mean. Neither had been on the field when a Hail Mary worked to win a game on the final play.
Heck, neither had been on the field for an offensive touchdown in eight quarters until Franks hit Brandon Powell for a 5-yard score earlier in the fourth quarter.
“We needed a win because it will bring us even closer as a unit, as a team. You could see stuff as a team going sideways here and there,” Ivey said. “That win right there I feel is going to bring us closer. It’s big for our team right now. We all believe in each other. We know we can do it now. We’re just going to keep on pushing from here.”
If the Gators and Franks take off from here, they will look back at the final nine seconds of their home opener as the magical moment. One that lived well beyond the fan frenzy the play ignited at The Swamp.
“I’m with him on that,” McCoy said of Ivey’s assessment the team needed something positive to happen. “I feel like it gave the offense a sense of confidence. We did some great things this game, stepping into our own. All we’ve got to do is continue keep getting better and build on this.”
During the game, CBS announcer Brad Nessler created a buzz on social media when he mentioned McElwain’s concern about the locker room amidst the early-season turmoil. McElwain said during his postgame press conference that it has been difficult for the players to be without some of their teammates, close friends and important members of the depth chart, and it’s his job to keep the team tight and focused.
Still, the games go on. The No. 24-ranked Gators are 1-1 and play at Kentucky next weekend.
“I think this is a good remedy for that,” McElwain said. “It’s great for these players and it’s great for the people and city of Gainesville and all the Florida fans. That’s what it’s great for.”
If you’re looking for a possible tell-tale sign of what this season could become, look no further than No. 13 running around the field, high-fiving teammates and fans along the sidelines and anyone within arm’s reach.
Franks’ excitement came shortly after the agony of an interception that led to Tennessee’s field goal to tie the score 20-20 and what everyone thought was overtime. He brushed it off.
“If you’re going to play quarterback in the SEC, that’s going to happen,” Franks said. “Nothing I really stressed over.”
The UF quarterback story has been a scratched record on a turntable with unlimited juice since No. 15 left. I think what happened Saturday is the best moment in the Swamp since the joyous celebration of Tim Tebow’s final game and victory over Florida State in 2009.
One pass doesn’t make a career, but Franks finished 18 of 28 for 212 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He made the throw of his life when it mattered most. And Cleveland made the catch of his life.
“He’s gotta hell of an arm,” Cleveland said. “It was crazy, just making that play. I was just shocked it all happened.”
Gator Nation is starving for more big plays on offense. Perhaps not as dramatic as Saturday’s, but enough to give reason to believe that Florida may have found its quarterback of the present and future.
“We had all this controversy about the quarterbacks,” said Reese. “I’m proud that Feleipe got a chance to make that big play for the Gators.”
What’s next? Time to wait and see as a blast of fresh excitement – much-needed if you haven’t noticed – surrounds Franks and the Gators.