GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The resolve of the Florida football team was tested Saturday against Vanderbilt. So was that of quarterback Feliepe Franks.
Franks replaced injured starter Luke Del Rio and led four scoring drives, including three for touchdowns in the second half, and the 20th-ranked Gators surged past the Commodores for a 38-24 victory against their Southeastern Conference East Division rival before an announced crowd of 84,478 Saturday at Spurrier/Florida Field.
True freshman tailback Malik Davis carried 17 times for a career-high 124 yards and two touchdowns, including a 38-yard dash on fourth-and-1 with 1:42 remaining to ice a third straight victory and keep UF (3-1, 3-0) alone atop the SEC East standings with a victory that, unlike the last two weeks, was void of nail-biting, late-game drama.
As for Franks, he was forced into action after Del Rio, promoted after last week's comeback win at Kentucky, was pounded into the ground after throwing a second-quarter pass. The game was tied at 14 at that point and UF responded by scoring on four of the next six drives on the way to season highs for points and total yards with 467, including 218 on the ground, and went 3-for-3 on fourth-down conversions. Franks finished 10 of 14 for 185 yards and no touchdowns, but no turnovers, either.
"Tempo of the offense. Staying on the field on third down. Those were things I needed to work on," said Franks, who looked more comfortable on both those fronts in stepping in as an emergency reliever. "The offensive line was firing off the ball and really opened up the passing game. That helped me out. And being able to convert on fourth down, that really helped me out, too."
Del Rio, meanwhile, made his first start of the season only to suffer a broken left collarbone that will require season-ending surgery Monday. It's the second straight year the fourth-junior has been struck down by a serious injury. He completed seven of 11 attempts for 64 yards and was sacked once.
"I feel horrible for him," UF coach Jim McElwain said. "[But] the guys rallied behind Feleipe. We talked about our situation, and that what we'll have to do moving forward."
Fourth-year junior Luke Del Rio is wrapped up by Vanderbilt defensive end Dare Odeyingbo on the play the Gators' starting quarterback suffered a season-ending broken collarbone.
The Florida defense struggled against the Vandy passing game, as quarterback Kyle Shurmer threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. The Gators, though, succeeded in making the Commodores (3-2, 0-2) one dimensional by holding them to just 46 yards rushing, including a mere 29 on 11carries from homegrown UF killer Ralph Webb, who had 100-yard-plus efforts each the last two seasons in the series. Vandy finished with 310 total yards.
"Let's credit Florida," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "This was a game attrition. This game was won and lost in the trenches."
The two teams swapped touchdowns in the first half to knot things at 14-all when Commodores kicker Tommy Openshaw banged a 42-yard field to break the tie with 43 seconds to go before intermission. Openshaw's kick came after Vandy went 60 yards in nine plays, the big play coming when Shurmer completed a 35-yard pass to Donoven Tennyson to the UF 30. The drive stalled, however, and the Commodores opted for the late field, a kick that was aided by five free yards when UF was flagged for lining up with 12 men on the field. The three points seemingly handed the visitors the halftime momentum.
Then it was taken away.
"He was ready," sophomore wide receiver Freddie Swain said. "Great composure, great energy. He just came in and stepped up."
Franks,the 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman who started the first three games only to benched last week, entered after Del Rio was taken to the locker room the series before. Del Rio was smothered by defensive end Dare Odeyingbo while delivering a pass and slammed hard to the turf on his left, non-throwing shoulder.
Franks, making like his heroics here two weeks ago against Tennessee, dropped and fired a missile down the middle of the field that wideout Tyrie Cleveland (he also of the same UT "Hail Mary" fame) caught the ball for a 49-yard completion to the Vandy 9.
Florida took three cracks at a touchdown before settling for a 21-yard field by Eddy Pineiro that tied the game at the break.
On UF's second possession of the third quarter, Franks led an eight-play, 73-yard beauty of a march that was easily the most complete drive by the Florida offense this season. Along the way, Franks made nice use of his tight end, with completions to Moral Stephens of 16 and 29 yards, the latter putting the Gators at the Commodores' 1.
Two plays later, Davis plowed for the touchdown and 24-17 lead with 3:56 left in the third quarter.
UF sophomore tailback Lamical Perine, who rushed for a pair of touchdowns in the first half, made it three scores on the day when he capped another Franks-led long drive (12 plays, 65 yards) with a 1-yard scoring run. En route to that TD, the Gators lost Cleveland, who injured his ankle on the back end of an 18-yard reception.
After that play, UF got a little lucky when a Franks' throw down the seam was somewhat short-armed and ricocheted off the fingertips of a Vandy defender and into the hands of Swain about 15 yards downfield at the 7.
'I just saw the ball in the air for a minute," said Swain, probably meaning a millisecond,. "I was like, 'OK, let me run over there to see if I can make a play. … And then I caught it."
True freshman tailback Malik Davis crosses the goal line on his game-icing 39-yard touchdown run in the final minutes of Saturday's 38-24 victory. Davis carried 17 times for a career-best 124 yards and two scores.
And then Perine finished things off to give Florida a 31-17 lead that marked the time time the Gators had led by two scores in any game all season.
Vanderbilt, though, cut that margin in half with a 13-play, 77-yard drive — its third touchdown drive of at least 75 yards for the game — when Shurmer hit tight end Nathan Marcus for a 7-yard score at the 3:56 mark. Along the way, the Commodores converted two fourth-down plays; one for 1 yard from the UF 46, then next one when they needed 10 yards and got a 28-yard completion down to the 7.
Down 31-24 and still with two timeouts, Vandy went for an onsides kick that UF's Dre Massey covered up at the Commodores' 48. Five snaps later, McElwain put the game in the hands of his offensive line on a pivotal fourthmdown from the Vandy 39. Franks, in turn, put the ball in Davis' hands.
Davis, in turn, put the game away.
"The guys knew what they needed to do and they went out and did it. That's good," McElwain said. "That's one in the books."
Minus the storybook ending of the last two weeks.