September 16, 2017
Feleipe Franks’ 63-yard prayer on the game’s final play was caught by Tyrie Cleveland for the game-winning TD.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Feleipe Franks doesn’t have very good stats as a starting college quarterback, but, boy, does the kid have an arm.
And now he has one of the most memorable moments in the history of University of Florida football.
Franks, the redshirt freshman from Crawfordville, Fla., making just his second career start, escaped the Tennessee rush, stepped up, toed the line of scrimmage and chucked a “Hail Mary” rocket down the middle of the field — and middle of Volunteers defense — that sophomore wide receiver dove and caught in the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown on the game’s final play and unfathomable and maniacal 26-20 victory in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams at the “Swamp.”
The Franks firework came after the Gators (1-1, 1-0) blew a 10-point lead in the final five-plus minutes of a game that was void of offensive weaponry for the first three quarters. UF led 6-3 heading into the final period, with the two teams combining for 37 points and 420 yards over the final 15 minutes.
The last 63 were not to be believed.
UF thwarted UT’s chance to win the game on a final drive and forced the Vols (2-1, 0-1) to settle for Aaron Medley’s 27-yard field goal with 50 seconds that tied the game at 20. The ensuing kickoff was a touchback, so the Gators took possession at their 25 with those 50 seconds left. Give UF had turned the ball over three times, and Franks had thrown an interception in his own territory on the previous series to put the Vols in position to tie, taking a knee and playing for overtime easily could have been an option.
Instead, Franks (18 of 28 for 212 yards) dropped and hit tight end C’yontai Lewis, his intended receiver on the interception mere seconds before, for three yards on first down. On second down, Franks scrambled for six yards to set up a third-and-1, with the clocking ticking. Mark Thompson rushed three yards to give Florida a first down at the Tennessee 37 and stop the clock long enough for the Gators to get lined up.
Nine seconds remained on the clock.
Franks took the snap, dropped and was flushed to his right and had enough room to take a few steps of momentum and launch the pass maybe a half-yard before the line of scrimmage. Downfield, Cleveland was running a deep post and — for some reason — the Vols didn’t sell out for the deep ball.
Cleveland, meanwhile, was splitting the deep middle and got a step on junior safety Micah Abernathy.
Franks’ pass fell into Cleveland’s arms as he dove into the middle of the end zone and was vaulted on my teammate Brandon Powell … and soon the entire Florida bench that emptied onto the field to celebrate one of the most fantastic finishes ever at Spurrier/Florida Field.
[Note: Whether it was a greater ending than two years ago is a matter of debate. Let the record show, however, that Antonio Callaway‘s miracle catch-and-run here in 2015 that gave the Gators a 28-27 victory over Tennessee was also a 63-yard pass play]
UF’s 6-3 entering the final, frantic quarter was built on two Eddy Pineiro field goals, one in each period in the first half. UT cut a 6-0 lead in half on Brent Cimaglia’s 51-yard field with 2:58 left before intermission.
At that point, the two teams had combined for just 275 yards.
Gators tailback Lamical Perine broke off a 19-yard run on UF’s first possession after the break, but fumbled at the end of the play. UT missed a chance to tie the game when Cimaglia was wide right on a field goal. Neither team scored in the third period.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, true freshman defensive back CJ Henderson caught a pass that was thrown high by UT quarterback Quinten Dormandy (21 of 39 for 259 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs) off the hands of UT stud wideout Marquez Callaway on a third-and-11 from the Volunteers’ 7. The ball skippped off Callaway’s out-stretched hands and fell to Henderson, who walked into the end zone for the game’s first touchdown to make the score 13-3. Two weeks ago, in the season-opening loss to Michigan in Texas, Henderson scored on a 41-yard interception return in his collegiate debut.
The Vols had another chance to cut into the margin, but another errant field-goal attempt, a 44-yarder by Aaron Medley, deflated the UT sideline.
On the very next snap, Florida tailback Malik Davis, the true freshman from Tampa, went up the middle for what appeared to be a 74-yard touchdown run. Unfortunately for Davis and the Gators, Davis had the ball stripped just before he crossed the goal line, and replays confirmed the fumble, which became a touchback and thwarted what would have been as 20-3 lead for the home team.
Instead, Tennessee went 80 yards in five plays, with tailback John Kelly scoring on a 34-yard run with 8:36 remaining to make it 16-10. After the play, Kelly did the Gator Chomp and was flagged for a 15-yard taunting penalty that was marked off on the kickoff. Cleveland took advantage of the infraction but returning the ensuing kickoff 46 yards to the UT 44.
Seven plays later, Franks pitched a 5-yard touchdown to slot back Brandon Powell to push the Gators in front 20-10 with 5:13 to go.
The Vols needed two plays to go 75 yards, with a screen pass from Dormady to Kelly good for 52 yards and a 28-yard scoring strike to tight end Ethan Wolf to make it 20-17 with 4:43 remaining.
On the next series, Franks threw his interception to safety Rashaan Gaulden to give the Vols a first down at the UF 40. UT got to the Florida 9, but the Gators’ defense, despite being on the field most of the second half, stiffened and turned the Vols away with a game-tying field goal with 50 seconds to go.
Plenty of time.