GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Against the backdrop of his team losing the season opener by more than two touchdowns, and after closing the 2016 regular season with two losses by an aggregate of 85-29, Florida coach Jim McElwain chose an interesting way to appease a grumbling fan base.
He launched a new BBQ sauce. Right there, on campus, in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Saturday, the same day the Gators opened SEC play against Tennessee, McElwain and his wife had a kiosk selling, “Mac and Blondie’s Mombo3.” It’s said to be a mysterious concoction of ketchup, spices and a few failed game plans.
“When I think of the sauce, I think of friends and family and being in a good place,” McElwain bragged to the Gainesville Sun.
Here’s what he wasn’t thinking of: Timing. Optics. The temperature of his target audience.
Florida and Tennessee played a football game Saturday. The undeniable winner was Georgia.
On the scoreboard, the Gators won 26-20. They won it on the sloppy game's final spasm: a 63-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland with no time left in regulation. Florida beat Tennessee on the same play with from the same distance two years ago in The Swamp: That was a 63-yard touchdown catch by Antonio Callaway in a 28-27 win.
"Train right open. Big Ben in," McElwain said later of the play call.
Better to call it, "Prayer answered."
Or, "Season saved."
The Gators were on the verge of dropping to 0-2 for the first time since 1971. They played poorly enough to do that. The opponent helped.
So an area and a state punched in the gut by Hurricane Irma had something to celebrate. But everybody needed a shower after this one.
Florida and Tennessee combined for six turnovers, three missed field-goal attempts, a pick-six, a fumble out of the end zone for a touchback, 15 penalties and two dropped touchdowns.
In what has become the annual question, “Who can win the SEC East Division and have a chance get humiliated by Alabama?” neither team on the field looked the part.
McElwain said afterward, “Well, that was a lot of fun.”
Then later, “Obviously, it wasn’t a thing of beauty. But sometimes in games like this you have to find a way to win.”
And, "We're find a lot of ways to shoot ourselves in the foot."
Tennessee misfired more often. A Florida fumble in the fourth quarter set up one Volunteers touchdown that closed the Gators’ lead to 13-10. The teams, offensively dormant for three quarters -- the score was 6-3 entering the final quarter -- suddenly erupted for 37 points in the fourth quarter. Florida led 20-17, when Franks threw an interception that put the Vols in position to win.
They drove from the Florida 40 to the nine. There was 1:06 left, more than enough time to score. But Tennessee called three straight pass plays instead of once handing the ball to John Kelly, who had rushed for 141 yards and a touchdown. All of the passes fell incomplete (one was a drop by Kelly). Tennessee settled for a tying field goal with 50 seconds left.
The game appeared headed to overtime. This was not good for sauce sells.
But on the fourth play of the ensuing drive, seconds after hearing boos for a running play call, McElwain dialed up his prayer: Franks threw probably the best pass of his life, and Tennessee’s secondary inexplicably let Cleveland behind the defense.
"I was fast and straight," Cleveland said.
Tennessee beat Georgia on a 43-yard final-second heave last season. This one went the other way.
There’s no doubting the strength of Florida’s defense. But the Gators gave Tennessee opportunities to win this game. They were rejected. Georgia Tech wishes the Volunteers had been so kind a couple of weeks ago.
Florida led 6-3 early in the third quarter. Running back Lamical Perine fumbled at the Gators’ 49, and Tennessee drove to the 5-yard line. But on third-and-goal, Dormandy tried to force a pass to a receiver in the slot and threw it right to Florida defensive back Duke Dawson.
Florida led 13-3 after a pick-six by C.J. Henderson early in the fourth, and it seemed this game was put out of its misery in the fourth quarter when Gators freshman Malik Davis broke open for a seeming 72-yard touchdown run. But on Davis’ way to a celebration, Tennessee cornerback Justin Martin caught up and slapped the ball out of his hands just before the goal line. The ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback.
It was that kind of game.
But it was a nice escape for McElwain. BBQ sauce is an appropriate condiment for him. He has been smoked slowly by a Florida fan base that grew accustomed to championships under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, so now he has something to douse himself with.
There’s already a joke around Gainesville that the sauce should’ve been called, “Mombo3-8.” That may seem harsh for a coach who has won two SEC East titles. But the SEC Championship game has been like a match race between the two fastest animals of different species: a cheetah vs. a sloth. There’s nothing to suggest the ending will be different this season. But Georgia could look at this game and feel good about its chances in the East.
Assuming it can beat Florida.
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