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A Hail Mary Turned Florida-Tennessee From a Horror Show Into a Highlight Reel

The best play of the college football season came at the end of one of its worst games

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Every Hail Mary is a story of massive success and massive failure. One team has to do something incredible; the other team has to fail to defend a pass that everybody in the stadium expects and takes an eternity to arrive.

And that’s also the story of Florida-Tennessee, a rivalry game between ranked opponents that began with hours of foot-shooting and finished with the play of the college football season thus far:

There’s the success—a massive heave from Florida’s freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks. It wound up in the hands of wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland, and I’m pretty certain it could’ve reached Cleveland, Ohio, on the fly if the enormous quarterback had been pointed in the right direction.

And there’s the failure—a Tennessee team inexplicably playing a conventional defense when defending the deep ball should’ve been their only concern. Calling this a Hail Mary isn’t even technically accurate—only two Florida receivers headed to the end zone. Somehow, both of those receivers were single-covered by lone safeties. Cleveland found himself all alone, made the catch, and gave Florida a 26-20 victory as the clock expired.

For the first 115 minutes of their season, Florida’s offense failed to score a touchdown. The Gators had scored three touchdowns, but all were interceptions returned for scores by their defense. (After two full games, the Gators’ co-leader in passing touchdowns is Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight.) On Saturday, it looked like they’d finally break the seal with about five minutes remaining against the Volunteers, but nope—running back Malik Davis fumbled after 74 yards when he needed to run 75:

But they were still in the game—the Vols were also trying their best to avoid scoring. Tennessee has an excellent running back in John Kelly, but apparently forgot that when they finally made it inside the Florida 10-yard line early in the third quarter (three consecutive passes, the third an interception). Tennessee’s kickers missed three field goals. The score was Florida 6, Tennessee 3 to start the fourth quarter. This was not just a bad game, but a game in which both teams seemed determined to make their fans rue the day they learned about football.

And then, chaos. Davis’s fumble was followed up by a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive by Tennessee, beginning with an 18-yard run by Kelly and ending with a 34-yard run by Kelly. Florida answered back with a seven-play touchdown drive, the Gators’ first offensive score of the year. Tennessee answered back with a two-play touchdown drive, featuring a rumbling 52-yard reception by Kelly. A field goal by Tennessee tied the game with 50 seconds to go.

Each team’s coach should feel bad about what happened here. Tennessee’s Butch Jones committed field position malpractice—those three missed field goals fall somewhat on him since his playcalling perpetually forced them to attempt 50-ish yarders—and starved Kelly, a merciless runner who demolished the Gators when given the ball. Jones’s Volunteers have a had a few excellent wins in close games—like their season-opening double-overtime win against Georgia Tech, sealed by a stop on a two-point conversion, or their epic Hail Mary win against Georgia last year. But they’ve also had plenty of heart-breaking losses—this isn’t even the first time they’ve lost to Florida on a 63-yard pass. That makes sense, as end-of-game craziness is often random, but the decision-making that leads to such close games deserves examination.

And Florida’s Jim McElwain, a coach hired for his offensive prowess, has built one of the least effective offenses in college football. The Gators hoped McElwain could spice up the offense after years of ineptitude under Will Muschamp, whose primary offensive strategy is smashing his head into a pile of bricks until his anger subsides. McElwain spent most of his career as a quarterbacks coach, and his quarterbacks went almost two whole games without a touchdown pass.

But the ball was still in the air when the clock hit zero in that second game. And after so much failure, the Gators finally found success.