Last season, Chris Leak’s clutch play helped Florida continue its dominance over Vanderbilt. Luckily for the Gators, a head injury won’t keep the senior quarterback out of his last game in the series.
After playing through pain in his last game, Leak leads the seventh-ranked Gators (7-1, 5-1 SEC) as they try to extend a 15-game winning streak against the Commodores (4-5, 1-4) on Saturday in Nashville.
Leak says he has no lingering effects from an injury he suffered in the first half of a 21-14 win over Georgia on Saturday, insisting he didn’t play the second half with a concussion.
“I’m perfectly fine,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
After the game, Leak told coach Urban Meyer he felt like he sustained a concussion in the first half, possibly the result of a missed block by right tackle Carlton Medder that allowed Leak to get hit. The quarterback had told team trainers only that he had a headache.
Meyer said Leak, who had a severe headache and blurred vision, had several missed calls after the hit. He burned three timeouts because of play-calling issues.
“You’re going to take shots in the head as a quarterback,” Leak said. “You just try to take it the best you can. You got to tough it out. A bunch of guys have ankle injuries, shin problems, calf problems, things like that. As a player, you got to tough it out and play through it.”
Leak helped Florida avoid its first loss to Vanderbilt since 1988 on Nov. 5, passing for three touchdowns—two in overtime—and rushing for two scores in a 49-42 victory. Leak has passed for 743 yards and six TDs with three interceptions while rushing for 100 yards and four scores in three games against the Commodores.
Vanderbilt had pulled within a point of the Gators at the end of regulation last year and was ready to go for the 2-point conversion, but wide receiver Earl Bennett was penalized for celebration in a controversial call. Vandy kicked the extra point instead.
The Commodores say they’re over it.
“You can’t even look at that kind of stuff … ,” Vanderbilt offensive lineman Mac Pyle said. “It stings. We think we should have had that shot to win it right there at the end, but we’ve got to look past it this year and get ready to play them, because it’s a whole different team.”
Florida, which moved up two spots in the Top 25 this week, can improve to 8-1 for the first time since 2001.
To do that, Meyer thinks his team need to shore up its pass protection.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence in our drop-back passing game,” Meyer said. “We’re having a hard time protecting Chris. The teams we’ve faced are dynamic rushers and we’re having trouble holding up against them. Our run-action passing and our rush yardage are OK. Our drop-back passing game right now is not very good.”
Meyer vowed to make changes, starting along the offensive line. Medder, also called for a false start last week, could be replaced by Ronnie Wilson.
Vanderbilt is starting to pay the price for not having a bye week on its schedule, as the Commodores haven’t had time to heal up. They played through injuries and fatigue in beating Duke 45-28 on Saturday, but the schedule means they won’t rest until they finish the season—a stretch of 12 games in 12 consecutive weeks.
“It all adds up,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “But we can’t do anything about it.”
Johnson had to play third-stringers Thomas Welch and Josh Allen at right guard and nickel back, respectively. Welch was a tight end just two weeks ago. Allen, a cornerback, volunteered to play his first snaps at nickel when Darlron Spead and Sean Dixon left with injuries.
Elliot Hood, whose injuries forced Welch onto the field, is questionable for Saturday, as is defensive end Curtis Gatewood and a number of special teams players including Dixon, Chris Johnson, Brandon Bryant and Funtaine Hunter.
Vanderbilt does have Chris Nickson coming off his best game of the season. Nickson threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 150 and three more scores to earn the SEC offensive player of the week award.
Even with a rested and healthy team, Florida would be enough of a challenge. Johnson said Meyer’s complicated offense has him concerned.
“They’ve got running backs catching the ball, receivers running the ball. You can drive yourself crazy trying to say you’re going to defend everything that they do. If you try to defend every play or every set, you’re going to be way above your head,” Johnson said.
Florida leads the series 28-9-2.