GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For three quarters, Tennessee's defense played better than expected against a Florida offense that looked as mediocre as advertised. All the while, a solid Gators defense played as anticipated against a Volunteers offense that robbed itself in crucial situations.
In the end, the fourth quarter took on a life of its own and provided a stunning finish to a Southeastern Conference classic Tennessee fans will hope to forget.
Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks completed a 63-yard touchdown pass to a diving Tyrie Cleveland on the last play of the game, lifting the No. 24 Gators to a 26-20 win over the No. 23 Vols in the SEC opener for both teams Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Tennessee's players sat on the field — seemingly in shock — as they found themselves on the wrong side of a Hail Mary after winning a game in similar fashion last year at Georgia.
"It's tough," senior cornerback Justin Martin said. "I felt like we were about to come off the field and go to overtime. But things didn't go as planned."
Almost nothing did for Tennessee (2-1), which rallied from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit that was almost 17 until Martin intervened with 10:45 left in the game.
He forced Florida's Malik Davis to fumble just a yard short of a would-be 74-yard touchdown. If Davis had scored, it likely would have put the game out of reach. Two minutes later, Tennessee running back John Kelly scampered 34 yards for the Vols' first touchdown of the game, cutting Tennessee's deficit to 13-10.
Kelly's Gator chomp celebration directed at the student section earned him a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty enforced on the ensuing kickoff. The penalty gave Cleveland a kick return opportunity, and he ran it 46 yards into Tennessee territory.
From there, the teams traded passing touchdowns with an offensive prowess that had been absent through the first three quarters.
Down 20-17, Tennessee got a key interception from Rashaan Gaulden with 3:57 to go, and the Vols chewed up more than three minutes of clock while positioning kicker Aaron Medley for the game-tying 27-yard field goal with 50 seconds left. Then came Florida's fateful winning possession.
Vols coach Butch Jones said he anticipated the Gators would use one of their two remaining timeouts when they came out with nine seconds left on the game-ending play with Franks in the shotgun and four wide receivers.
Tennessee was not in a prevent defense, fearing a medium-length completion and quick timeout could get strong-legged kicker Eddy Pinerio close enough to attempt a game-winning field goal. With the Vols playing their base nickel package, Cleveland beat safety Micah Abernathy deep and dove into the end zone with the ball in his hands.
"It's a team that hurts," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said afterward. "You work exceptionally hard for 12 opportunities that you're guaranteed, working to get more. They hurt, but you've got to build upon this opportunity. It's hard at this point in time, but you've got to build from it."
Jones said "it's on me" as he cited "overall discipline, our fundamentals, our details," for the loss.
"The key factor, in my opinion, in this game was situational football," Jones said. "Red zone, goal line, those were the critical plays we didn't make."
Twice, the Vols took over in Florida territory in the third quarter while trailing 6-3. Twice, they came away with no points, even after driving to the Gators' 1-yard-line in one case.
Tennessee lined up in the shotgun and attempted a fade to the corner, with the pass nearly intercepted. Florida was called for a penalty, moving the ball even closer to the goal line. Then a false start pushed the Vols back to the 6. An incompletion, an ineffective screen pass and an interception ended the series.
"You've got the ball first-and-goal on the 1. You're right, hindsight is 20/20," Jones said. "But you're thinking you've got four downs. We would have went for it. Again, we didn't execute. That's on us. You've got to learn from it. We can't make those mistakes again. It's unfortunate."
Adding to the Vols' misery were three missed field goals, all on attempts of 40 yards or longer.
Florida drove 15 plays on its first possession, using more than half the first-quarter clock. The possession stalled when Florida committed consecutive first-down penalties after surging deep into Tennessee territory. A 27-yard Pinerio field goal put the Gators ahead 3-0, a score that held for the rest of the quarter before the teams traded field goals in the second quarter.
Sacks by Tennessee defensive end Darrell Taylor and linebacker Colton Jumper on consecutive Florida possessions kept the Gators from piecing together another first-half drive like their opening series.
Tennessee kicker Brent Cimaglia received his introduction to college football by making a 51-yard field goal to bring the Vols within 6-3 with three minutes left in the first half. The freshman from Franklin, Tenn., narrowly missed two later attempts of 51 and 47 yards.
Jones challenged his team after the game not to let the loss define their season.
"We think we're a really good football team," senior tight end Ethan Wolf said. "We're surprised this game ended this way. We're just going to figure out why and not let it happen again."
Added Jones: "It's one of those plays that probably comes around once every so often, and unfortunately they made a play and we didn't."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.