GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Almost exactly two years ago, Tennessee lost a stunner in The Swamp on a 63-yard touchdown.
It happened again Saturday, only this time the defeat was much more sickening, though.
After rallying from a pair of 10-point deficits, No. 22 Tennessee looked primed to upset No. 23 Florida in The Swamp, but in a cruel bit of fate, the Vols found themselves on the reverse end of a Hail Mary at the buzzer for a nightmarish 26-20 loss.
“They got behind us,” cornerback Justin Martin stated, bluntly.
“I didn't really think he was going to try and throw a Hail Mary,” defensive tackle Kendal Vickers offered.
“Now we know how Georgia feels,” left tackle Brett Kendrick said.
On the final play of the game Saturday, Gators redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks uncorked a 63-yard heave into the end zone to wideout Tyrie Cleveland, as the sophomore got behind Vols safety Micah Abernathy to make a diving catch as the clock struck 0:00.
“We’ve just got to stay as deep as the deepest (receiver),” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “We allowed the quarterback to flush the pocket. He stepped up and made a great play. But you have to stay deep as the deepest and knock the ball down.”
Tennessee didn’t, though, resulting in an ill-fated finish.
The Vols made a million mistakes Saturday, but they also made enough plays to win in Gainesville for the first time since 2003. After tying the score at 20-all on their final offensive drive, the Vols held the momentum with just nine seconds remaining in regulation.
UF was at its own 37-yard line with two timeouts. Tennessee aligned in a nickel, Cover-2 scheme, thinking the Gators would simply try to get enough yardage for a long field goal attempt.
Evidently, that was Florida’s plan initially, too.
“I didn't go into that play looking to throw the ball deep,” Franks said.“I knew the kicking line was about the 35 but with nine seconds, it would be hard to get that far downfield and get out of bounds, so I was just thinking about getting the ball into a receivers hands.”
Instead, Franks was forced to flush the pocket almost immediately. Vols defensive end Jonathan Kongbo got quick pressure and was even briefly held on the play. Still, Florida’s redshirt freshman quarterback had just enough time to heave a perfect pass 63-yards into the end zone.
According to ESPN Stats Inc., it was Franks’ lone completion over 10 yards in the air all game.
“We were in a nickel, but with injuries we didn't have a dime,” Jones said. “It’s one of those plays that only comes around so often and unfortunately they made the play and we didn’t.”
While the circumstances weren't exactly the same, the Franks-Cleveland connection evoked déjà vu memories from last season when Georgia’s Riley Ridely got behind Tennessee’s defense for a Hail Mary touchdown. The Vols recovered from that mistake with their own miracle finish, but they weren't afforded a second life on Saturday.
Asked if Tennessee should’ve been in a prevent-type defense, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden simply stated, “No comment.”
Naturally, Tennessee players were completely despondent after the game. To man, they said they’d find a way to bounce back and not let the loss linger. Jones admitted, “This team hurts,” before saying the Vols must learn from what happened and “build upon the opportunity.”
“They hurt. It’s hard at this time, but it’s got to make you stronger. You’ve got to build from it,” Jones said.
“Everybody believed we were going to find a way to win the football game. It’s on me. We have to do a better job in terms of our overall discipline, our fundamentals, our details.”