'Hail Mary! Hail Feleipe!' Gators Bomb Vols on Final Play

September 16, 2017

Feleipe Franks’ 63-yard miracle toss to Tyrie Cleveland beats Tennessee 26-20.

Chris Harry - @GatorsChris

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Feleipe Franks doesn’t have eye-popping stats as a young starting college quarterback, but, boy, does the kid have an arm.

And now he has one of the most electrifying moments in the history of University of Florida football.

Franks, the redshirt freshman 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 the Volunteers’ defense — that sophomore wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland dove for and caught in the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown and unfathomable/maniacal 26-20 victory on the game’s final play Saturday night in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams at The Swamp.

“You hope to come down with a 50-50 ball,” Franks said.

Or pray that you do. Isn’t that what a “Hail Mary” is all about?

No matter. What did matter was the end result.

“I think everybody found out that Feleipe can throw the ball a long ways in the air,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.

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 otherwise void of offense for the first three quarters. UF led 6-3 heading into the final period, but then the two teams combined for 37 points and 420 yards over the final 15 minutes.

The last nine seconds were not to be believed.

Brandon Powell (4) pounces on Tyrie Cleveland after his miracle catch in the end zone.

UF thwarted the Vols’ chance to win the game on their final drive and forced UT (2-1, 0-1) to settle for Aaron Medley’s 27-yard field goal with 50 seconds to go that tied the game at 20. The ensuing kickoff was a touchback, so the Gators took possession at their 25 and just those 50 seconds left. Given 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 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 clock ticking. Mark Thompson rushed three yards to give Florida a first down at its 37 and stop the clock long enough for the Gators to get lined up.

Nine seconds remained in the game.

From the UF sideline came the play — “Train Ride Open, Big Bend In” — and it was designed to get the Gators in field-goal range for Eddy Pineiro to get a crack at one of his YouTube-viral field-goal tries.

“That’s what I was thinking,” senior slot man Brandon Powell said. “I guess Feleipe was thinking something different.”

As the huddle broke, Cleveland said something to Franks.

“Give me a chance.”

Franks took the snap, dropped, was flushed to his right, stepped up and through the rush, and had enough room to take a few steps for 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 were in a nickel alignment not sold out for the deep ball.

“I saw Tyrie out of the corner of my eye,” Franks said.

Cleveland was splitting the deep middle and managed to get a step on junior safety Micah Abernathy.

“Touchdown!” said Thompson when asked what he thought the outcome of the play would be. “I had faith.”

Franks’ pass fell into Cleveland’s arms as he dove into the end zone and was instantly vaulted on by teammate Brandon Powell, followed by the entire Florida bench that emptied onto the field to celebrate one of the most fantastic finishes ever at Spurrier/Florida Field with a big orange and blue dog pile.

“Oh, I knew I had it,” Cleveland said. “I knew I was going to come down with it. I made it my business to come down with it.”

[Note: Whether it was a greater ending than the win over Tennessee 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 was also a 63-yard pass play. That play, also, was designed to get into field goal range. Its name? “Train Ride Open, Big Bend In.”]

With the win, UF avoided overtime and along with it any chance of starting a season 0-2 for the first time since 1971. Just as important, the Gators experienced a unique brand of success that may help build some momentum — maybe even some confidence — for a team that’s been sort of searching for an identity the last few weeks.

And it was also a rousing shot in the arm for a university, city and region rocked by Hurricane Irma earlier in the week.

“We’ve been through some things, but you know what? They just keep going,” McElwain said. “It obviously was not pretty, but sometimes as you go through this business it’s about finding a way. Our guys figured out a way to win.”

Franks finished 18 of 28 for 212 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, with his only completion of at least 10 yards coming on that final play. The Gators, who came into the game ranked last in the SEC in both total offense and rushing offense, finished with 380 total yards, including 168 on the ground.

Tennessee got 259 yards passing and one TD from quarterback Quinten Dormady, but he also was picked off three times, including once at the UF goal line. Tailback John Kelly was a do-it-all-killer, rushing for 141 yards and a score, plus catching six passes for 96 yards. The Vols rolled up 442 yards against the Florida defense, with 183 on the ground, but the Gators — clearly wearing down in the mile-a-minute fourth quarter — did what it had to do late to put Franks and folks in position to make a play.

A crazy one, as it turned out.

“It’s one of those plays that probably comes around once every so often,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones, whose team beat rival Georgia on a similar last-play-of-game just last season. “Unfortunately, they made the play and we didn’t. But there were many plays prior to that we didn’t make.”

That neither team could make, actually.

UF’s 6-3 lead entering the final, frantic quarter was built on two 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 give the Vols excellent field position. UT missed a chance to tie the game when defensive back Duke Dawson intercepted Dormady on third-and-goal at the UF 6. The Vols drove to the UF 23 on their next possession, but Brent Cimaglia missed another field goal.

Neither team scored in the third period.

On the second play of the fourth quarter, true freshman defensive back CJ Henderson intercepted Dormady on third-and-11 throw intended for stud wideout Marquez Callaway from the Volunteers’ 7. The ball skipped 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, 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 Medley, deflated the UT sideline. But for only so long.

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 that had the joint jumping. Unfortunately for Davis and the Gators, Davis had the ball stripped just before he crossed the goal line. Replays confirmed the fumble, which became a touchback and cancelled out what would have been a 20-3 lead for the home team.

Instead, Tennessee answered by going 80 yards in five plays, with Kelly scoring on a 34-yard run with 8:36 remaining to make it 16-10. After the play, Kelly did the Gator Chomp at the UF defense and was flagged for a 15-yard taunting penalty that was marked off on the kickoff. Cleveland took advantage of the infraction by returning the 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 for what was the first touchdown by the Florida offense since the third period of the Outback Bowl defeat of Iowa last Jan. 1 (a run of eight quarters).

Game over, right?

The Vols needed two plays to go 75 yards, with a screen pass from Dormady to Kelly good for 52 yards, followed by a 28-yard scoring strike to tight end Eli Wolf to make it 20-17 with 4:43 remaining.

On the next series, with Florida looking to run some clock, Franks threw his interception to safety Rashaan Gaulden on second down to give the Vols the ball 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, as it turned out.

“I hope it gives us momentum and teaches us to never quit,” sophomore linebacker David Reese said. “I hope it gives us belief.”

If this one doesn’t, nothing will.

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