Florida arrived at Vanderbilt’s small stadium a mere hour and two minutes before kickoff, determined to avoid the cramped quarters in the visitors’ locker room at all costs and intent on spending as little time on the premises as they had to. Then the Gators took the field and played with the same attitude.
Kyle Trask threw for 385 yards and a season “low” three touchdowns, including a critical one to Trevon Grimes just before the first half, and the defense did just enough to keep the Commodores at arm’s length in a 38-17 Gator win. The victory is Florida’s 29th in the last 30 games against Vanderbilt, and their 15th straight in Nashville. More importantly, it puts Florida at 6-1 on the year, and two wins away from clinching the SEC East.
No sooner had Evan McPherson’s opening kickoff sailed through the end zone than Vanderbilt went to work against the Florida defense. The Commodores slowly burned the Gators on an eleven play 75 yard touchdown drive that rookie passer Ken Seals put a bow on with a 16 yard pass to Chris Pierce. Florida would fight back with a long drive of their own that ended with Kadarius Toney leaving a defender on the ground and catching a 27 yard touchdown pass from Trask, but then the Commodores beat up the Florida defense on another long drive. This time, the Gators woke up in time to stop them in the red zone and force a field goal.
Florida’s defense settled into the game after that, but the lethargy continued on the other side of the ball. The Gators managed just a measly field goal on its next three drives, getting one first down before punting on its other two possessions before finally getting it together.
Just before the half, Trask guided Florida down the field on an 85 yard drive on seven plays that featured two big completions to Jacob Copeland. After entering Vanderbilt territory, Trask bought a little bit of time before putting up a jump ball for Trevon Grimes and a pair of Commodore defenders. Grimes outmuscled them both and came up with the ball, wrestling it away and maintaining control through the process of the catch for an incredible 34 yard touchdown grab. That gave Florida its first lead of the game- a lead it would never relinquish, and one it would waste no time adding to.
Right after intermission, Trask led Florida on back to back touchdown drives to slam the door shut. Each scoring strike featured one chunk play- the first one from Trask to Justin Shorter for a 46 yard gain on a 2nd and 17 and the second one on a nice catch and run from Kadarius Toney down the left sideline- before being paid off with a short run from Dameon Pierce and a quick lob from Trask to Kemore Gamble, respectively. That made it 31-10 Gators with three minutes left in the third.
But then Florida got careless- and to their credit, the Commodores didn’t quit.
First, Seals found Chris Pierce on the slant, who broke separate tackles from Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner to stomp into the end zone for a 58 yard touchdown reception, almost all of it coming after the catch. That sliced the lead down to 31-17 in less than a minute. Florida then looked poised to put the game away on its next drive, but Kadarius Toney fumbled after a nice catch and run, and Vandy fell on it to get the ball back to Seals and their offense thirty seconds into the fourth quarter. The nerves tightened as the Commodores then went flying right down the field again, seemingly about to cut the Gators’ lead down to a single possession.
But for all its mistakes throughout the day, Florida’s defense finally clamped down and finished strong. Tyron Hopper blew through the line and forced a wobbly pass out of Seals’ hand that lineman Grant Miller instinctively caught for an eight yard loss. That crippled the Vandy drive. Trask and Emory Jones then tag-teamed to direct a 99 yard touchdown drive to re-establish a three score lead that Jones capped with a touchdown strike to Gamble. Moments later, Kaiir Elam effectively ended the game with an interception in the end zone, complete with an impromptu dance-off featuring Chester Kimbrough that drew perhaps the most perfunctory excessive celebration flag in recent memory. Neither Elam nor Florida cared; this game was done, and Florida was 6-1.
Vandy certainly triggered some alarm bells, though- especially after Florida’s 56-0 blowout of the Commodores the last time they played.
A Commodore offense that could only muster seven points against both LSU and South Carolina needed just two drives to top that mark against Florida. Worse yet, Florida’s defense surrendered over 400 yards of total offense for the fourth time in seven games this year, and the Chris Pierce touchdown jaunt was the fifth touchdown the 2020 Gators have given up of 50 yards or more. By contrast, the 2007 team- generally regarded by many fans as the most disappointing defense Florida has had in the 21st century- only gave up 400+ yards three times, and only four touchdowns of 50+ yards. The fact that Florida’s 2020 defense has already eclipsed the 2007 defense in two tallies that you ideally keep at zero, or at least as close to zero as possible… a mere seven games into the season when that 2007 team at least spread those stats out over thirteen games… is terrifying.
Nevertheless, it’s a win and Florida will take it and move on, now needing to beat two of Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU to wrap up a spot in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. The question becomes how strong of a chance in Atlanta, a contest that is all but assured to be against Alabama, does Florida really have the way this defense has played most of the season. Or, alternatively, how strong of a chance does Florida have to simply outgun the Crimson Tide in a shootout. And any objective observer or bookkeeper is not likely to think too highly of those chances.
But with game after game passing us by and no dramatic changes in this defense taking place, we’re running out of time to keep those slanted odds from being the lone determining factors in the biggest game of Dan Mullen’s coaching career.