GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—While Florida’s victory was short of stunning, the standings sure look good to the Gators.
Ciatrick Fason scored twice and Keiwan Ratliff returned his record-setting interception for a touchdown Saturday to help No. 17 Florida keep its Southeastern Conference title hopes alive with a grinding 35-17 victory over Vanderbilt.
With their fourth straight win, the Gators (7-3, 5-2 SEC)—largely considered a lost cause a month ago—nudged into sole possession of first place in the SEC East.
“I’m happy about it,” offensive lineman Shannon Snell said. “At the beginning of the year, we were creeping toward the bottom. We had to climb out of that cellar and it means a lot to be sitting on top at this point.”
Granted, Florida’s first-place spot is more of a statistical quirk than anything else—at least right now. Because Florida has played more games than its main competition, the Gators are one game ahead of idle Georgia (4-2) in the win column and two in front of Tennessee (3-2), which won a big nonconference game at Miami on Saturday.
Still, nobody on this team is going to nitpick—either with the standings or the less-than-overwhelming nature of the latest victory against Vandy (1-9, 0-6), which lost its 23rd straight SEC game.
Chris Leak threw for 179 yards and Ran Carthon ran for 79 more to lift Florida. The Gators put together two good-looking 80-yard touchdown drives. Yet with 5:46 left, Florida led only 28-17 and Vanderbilt, courtesy of Florida’s fourth turnover, was trying a 32-yard field goal that would have made it a one-score game.
Patrick Johnson missed it wide left and the threat was over.
A few minutes later, Ratliff set the school record with his eighth pick of the season, and returned it 52 yards for the last score, making a competitive game look more like a runaway, which it wasn’t.
Ratliff, who muffed a punt early that led to Vandy’s first touchdown, broke the record of seven interceptions held by three players, most recently Will White in 1990.
“As a playmaker, you hope you can step up and get your name called,” Ratliff said. “Early, I made a mistake that put the defense on bad terms. I wanted to make up for it.”
Seven of Ratliff’s interceptions have come in the last four games.
Equally hot is Fason, who finished with 53 yards rushing and 17 yards receiving. The sophomore was so upset with his playing time last month that he walked into coach Ron Zook’s office and said he was quitting.
Zook talked him out of it, and Fason has responded with five touchdowns over the last four games. His second score Saturday gave Florida a 28-10 lead in the third quarter. His first was a 12-yard reception, his third touchdown catch during the streak.
“A year ago this time, he was the last guy we’d want to throw the ball to,” Zook said.
Then again, the Gators have been full of surprises this season.
Last month, they were 3-3 after home losses to Ole Miss and Tennessee and many of the faithful were wondering if they’d win enough games to make a bowl.
Now, they’re in the hunt for the title, and in hopes of being part of that nutty three-way tiebreaker scenario, which SEC athletic directors decided Friday would be broken by using the Bowl Championship Series standings. No. 18 Tennessee’s victory over No. 6 Miami certainly helped the Vols in the polls, which are a major component in the BCS.
“All I’m worried about is South Carolina,” Zook said, speaking of Florida’s SEC finale next week. “If we don’t beat South Carolina, none of this makes any difference.”
To win at South Carolina, the Gators will surely need to clean some things up.
Besides the four turnovers, Florida kept Vanderbilt around with an assortment of mistakes, a few of them somewhat embarrassing:
Mike Degory snapped the ball high over Leak’s head in the third quarter, a play that resulted in a 35-yard loss and third-and-45 from the Florida 23.
After offsetting personal fouls were called following a second-quarter punt, Zook and the Gators got confused by the officials and declined Vandy’s penalty, allowing the Commodores to net 15 yards in field position.
“Sometimes it’s just good to get the mistakes out of the way,” said tackle Max Starks, who acknowledged being confused by the refs when he declined that penalty.
Against Vanderbilt, though, mistakes are tolerable. Despite playing a decent game, the Commodores stayed in line to lose 11 games for the first time in their beleaguered history.
Behind Jay Cutler’s 189 yards passing and 36 running, Vanderbilt controlled the ball for 36:26, but couldn’t exploit enough of Florida’s mistakes.
The Gators played a part in that. Daryl Dixon had two interceptions and Cory Bailey made a great break for another. Bailey’s came in the third quarter with the Commodores inside the Florida 15 and looking to cut into a 21-10 deficit.
“I’m very proud of our guys for not quitting,” Vandy coach Bobby Johnson said. “But we’re not looking to play close, we’re not looking to keep the score down. We are looking to win.”
The search continues next week against Kentucky.