NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After falling behind 21-3 to Vanderbilt midway through the second quarter Saturday, there was no panic on the Florida sideline. Instead, there was a calming voice of reason, and it came from a senior who’s seen and experienced a lot over the past four years.
“(Tight end) C’yontai Lewis came up to me and was telling me, ‘No matter what, no matter if it’s 31-0, you’re our guy, we’re always going to be rocking with you,’ ” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “He said, ‘There’s never a point in the game where we don’t have an opportunity to come back.’
“All our guys think that way. They were thinking that no matter what the deficit is, we were going to go out there and keep on playing, we were going to be all right.”
Without a hint of panic or even the slightest sense of urgency, the No. 14 Gators kept methodically playing Saturday, and they came all the way back, overcoming the 18-point deficit to down the Commodores 37-27 before 31,118 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
In moving to 6-1 on the season and 4-1 in the SEC, the Gators outscored the Commodores 34-6 over the final two-and-a-half quarters, overcoming some crushing early turnovers, a rash of mental mistakes and a bench-clearing incident that could have led to a brawl between the two teams late in the first half.
The comeback win ties for the biggest in school history on the road, matching the rally from a 21-3 deficit at Kentucky in 2003.
“Great win, great team win,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “This team’s learning a lot of different ways to win games. We’ve won some games following the plan to win. We’ve won games making big, explosive plays. We won kind of that drag out back-and-forth brawl. We come in today, and we don’t follow the plan to win.
“But we find a way to not let go of the rope, don’t let go of the rope. You find a way, I don’t care how far, if you’re getting dragged across the field, it’s burning through your hands, you don’t let go of the rope. You just grasp and you hold on until you get your feet in the ground and you start tugging and pulling back. And we did that.”
On a day when the Gators desperately needed their offense to come through, it did in a big, game-altering way.
Franks threw for a career-high 284 yards and two touchdowns, tailbacks Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett both rushed for more than 100 yards and the Gators rolled up a season-high 576 total yards to make the comeback possible.
“We didn't start as fast as we wanted to,” Franks said. “We kind of got off the plan to win a little bit as a team, but it shows the resilience. We’ve got to keep on working, forget about the (last) play. I had two turnovers today, from just myself at the quarterback position. That's just the players stressing at me to keep it going and come back out there and play the next play. That's what it’s all about.
“We never lost confidence. It's more those momentum changes that I gave up. Everyone just believing in me, they've always got my back, like 'Come on, we've still got this.' Stuff like that helped us come back and keep the momentum on our side when it really wasn't."
Mullen said the Gators have learned from their one loss this season to Kentucky a month ago. In that game, when things went wrong, some of the players tried to make too much happen and ended up giving up even more big plays getting themselves out of position.
It was a different story Saturday after things went south in the first half.
“The team learned from our one loss this year,” Mullen said. “If we get frustrated, we’ll get you coached up. Don’t try to cowboy and do your own thing. We’re going to make some adjustments, we’re going to scheme some things up, if we need to.
“Some of it’s just lack of execution, but don’t go overboard just trying to make a special play. Just execute cleaner, play a little harder, a little more strain, a little more cleaner execution.
“I just said, ‘Hey, let’s just execute and finish on the offensive side of the ball. Defense, we were getting knocked off the ball a little bit, so we’ve just got to fit the gaps, strain, get guys on the ground, force them to drive the length of the field. And when you get them in a passing situation, go make a play. And we did enough of that in the second half to win.”
The comeback began in the closing minutes of the first half, with the Gators scoring 10 unanswered points with a 7-yard TD run by Perine and a 25-yard field goal by Evan McPherson to make it a 21-13 game.
UF took over in the second half. Franks threw a 38-yard TD pass to Van Jefferson, Scarlett scored on a 48-yard run and Freddie Swain caught an 11-yard TD pass from Franks. McPherson iced the win with a 43-yard field goal with 37 seconds remaining in the game.
“I’d say it was just us locking in and focusing,” Scarlett said. “We had a lot of mistakes early on in the game, and mistakes happen in football. It’s just about how you fight through adversity and how you respond. I think we responded really well.”