An hour or so after the Florida-Vanderbilt football game concluded, several Florida players stuck around outside the Heavener Football Complex to spend some time and take pictures with a young man from Nashville named Austin, who suffers from autism and learning disabilities. With smiles on their faces, the players all did their part to ensure that Austin’s first ever trip to the Swamp was one he would never forget.
It was about time the Gators displayed some compassion for someone from Nashville. And like Austin, the Commodores aren’t likely to forget this trip to the Swamp, either.
James Houston IV paced Florida with eight tackles and a QB hurry, Donovan Stiner snagged a pair of interceptions, Jonathan Greenard ran back a fumble that Mohamoud Diabate forced for a touchdown and Kyle Trask lit the Commodores on fire for 363 yards through the air- the best performance by a Gator quarterback since Tim Tebow in the 2010 Sugar Bowl- in a 56-0 annihilation of Vanderbilt in the Swamp. The win is Florida’s sixth straight in the series and 28th in the last 29 meetings. The 56-0 margin also serves as a runner-up in two different all time series categories; it’s the second highest point total by one team in series history, and the second most lopsided margin of victory in series history. The Gators’ 71-13 slaughtering of Vandy in 2001 takes the gold medal in both categories.
It might be too little too late to save Florida’s SEC East hopes, though. Georgia’s subsequent win over Missouri means that the Bulldogs just need to win one of their final two SEC games or have Missouri beat Florida next week. That means that the Gators will likely be relegated to the Orange Bowl or the Cotton Bowl- which while not the ultimate goal, is nothing to be ashamed of.
But on this day, nobody cared about any of that.
Florida’s main concern coming into the game was making a statement in response to an ugly on field brawl during last year’s game against the Commodores in Nashville. A questionable targeting call on Houston touched off a near full-scale brawl on and near the Florida sideline that featured Vandy coach Derek Mason yelling at Dan Mullen and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, and Mason and Grantham needing to be restrained from going after and physically attacking each other. In that game, the Gators erased a 21-3 deficit and stormed back to win 37-27.
This time around, Florida didn’t need a comeback. After letting the memories of that day fester for a year, the Gators replied by handing Mason an embarrassing blowout loss that might ultimately cost him his job. And to hear Florida tell it, it should have been even worse.
The Gators began this game a little slow out of the gates as well. Florida failed on a fourth down conversion on its first drive, and Trask threw an interception on what looked like a miscommunication with tight end Kyle Pitts on the ensuing drive. As a result, the first quarter ended in a scoreless deadlock.
But Florida scored on the first play of the second quarter on an impromptu, makeshift jump pass from Trask to a wide open LaMical Perine in the flat and the Gators were off and running. Three plays later, Deuce Wallace was picked off by Donovan Stiner, who returned the ball down inside the Commodores’ red zone. Trask then paid off the takeaway by tucking the ball and trotting into the orange end zone paint on a third and six for a 14-0 advantage.
The Gators wouldn’t score again in the first half, but wasted no time in the third quarter turning a fairly close game into a rout. Right out of the gate, Trask found Trevon Grimes on a quick out route, who broke a tackle and then turned on the afterburners for a 66 yard touchdown reception. Florida immediately forced a punt, and two plays later Trask hit Pitts on a slant rout for a 15 yard touchdown to make it 28-0.
Even the things that went well for the Commodores ended in disaster. Following Pitts’ touchdown, Vandy mounted a nice drive into Gator territory and appeared poised to get on the scoreboard. But Diabate put an end to that idea by slapping the ball away from Wallace as he was about to throw it, setting up Greenard’s 80 yard scoop and score through a frenzied Swamp. That made it 35-0 midway through the third quarter.
Then it was Emory Jones’ turn. After a big run by Kadarius Toney to start the drive, Jones capped it with consecutive runs of 15 and 13 yards, the latter of which resulted in a touchdown and a 42-0 lead. Mason elected to give Allan Walters a chance at quarterback, but he fared no better, promptly throwing an interception right to Stiner. Four plays later, Jones plowed into the end zone for a touchdown to make it 49-0.
Ordinarily, Mullen might have stopped there. Instead, perhaps still seething about last year’s confrontation, Mullen ran up the score.
With four minutes to go, Mullen utilized Jones to direct a seven play, 68 yard touchdown drive, even calling a timeout with 1:10 left following a running play to ensure that Florida would score one final time. And Jones did on a three yard touchdown run to close out the scoring.
This game was about nothing other than righting several wrongs from both a week and a year ago. Florida’s not seriously in the national championship hunt and likely won’t join it this season, but by obliterating Vanderbilt, the Gators at least displayed the ability to bounce back from a disappointing loss and not let one bad performance segue into two. The same could not be said of last year’s team, and so in a season that probably isn’t going to end with any more achievements than last year, it’s of paramount importance that Mullen’s program display some sign of growth and improvement.
And it’s hard to find something to be more proud of than the ability to shake off a tough loss and move forward.