Florida coach Jim McElwain shook his head and chuckled as he joked about possibly getting arrested leaving the stadium.
“Let’s face it, we stole one,” McElwain said.
No doubt, the 11th-ranked Gators felt fortunate to have something to celebrate Saturday.
Austin Hardin’s 43-yard field goal with 2:22 remaining helped Florida beat pesky Vanderbilt 9-7 and clinch a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Order restored – barely.
The Gators (8-1, 6-1 SEC) won the Eastern Division for the first time since 2009, following through on McElwain’s mantra to “restore the order.” That was his way of saying Florida needs to get back to league and national prominence.
It happened in unlikely fashion, with Florida scoring its fewest points in victory since beating Florida State 9-3 in 1968.
“When you’re on a championship run – let’s call it what it is; we’re on a championship run – sometimes there are games like this,” McElwain said. “And champions figure out ways to win them. These guys are SEC East champs.”
Vanderbilt nearly ruined it for the Gators.
The Commodores (3-6, 1-4) held Florida to 258 yards, including 57 in the second half. But the Gators did just enough on their next-to-last possession to set up Hardin’s winning kick.
Hardin, who only handled kickoffs earlier in the game, drilled it.
Vanderbilt had one final chance, but failed to pick up a first down on a fourth-and-25 play. The Commodores gained positive yardage once in eight plays, but were aided by a holding call on fourth down and a questionable targeting call a few plays later.
“I liken this game to a heavyweight fight,” Commodores coach Derek Mason said. “We watched the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson fight. We watched it last night. What it comes down to is there’s a time in the fight where you’ve got to take the punch. You’ve got to jab, take the punch, when the opening comes, hopefully you hit it.
“For us, we jabbed, jabbed, jabbed and then we went for the knockout blow and we came up a little short. I told our guys, ‘Don’t hang your head. You’ve got nothing to regret.'”
The Gators took a knee from there, setting off a wild celebration that Florida fans have been waiting on for years.
For much of the game, though, it looked like Florida would leave the Swamp empty-handed.
Kelvin Taylor was stuffed, finishing with 47 yards rushing and a touchdown on 17 carries. Treon Harris completed 12 of 24 passes for 158 yards and was sacked three times.
Florida’s main problem was turnovers. The Gators entered the game ranked second in the nation in turnover margin (plus-13), but turned the ball over four times.
Harris fumbled and threw his first interception of the season. Freshman defensive end CeCe Jefferson fumbled at the end of a fake field goal. And Demarcus Robinson coughed it up trying to gain extra yards.
“We just fought through adversity,” Harris said. “We needed a game like that. The guys woke up and know that anything can happen. We saw we could fight and make a way to win a game.”
Equally troubling for the Gators, after their lone touchdown – Taylor’s 11th scoring run of the season – walk-on Neal MacInnes shanked the extra point.
MacInnes, a senior studying to be a dental ceramist, won the open kicking competition last week. MacInnes was one of 216 students who responded to an open call after Florida lost Jorge Powell to a season-ending knee injury at LSU. MacInnes beat out former equipment staffer Donovan White and former Virginia Tech kicker Brooks Abbott.
He last kicked in a game in 2011 as a senior at Chamberlain High in Tampa – and it showed.
The Gators trotted him back out for a field goal early in the second quarter, but then called a fake. The pass play worked until Jefferson fumbled.
McElwain didn’t make the same mistake with the game on the line. He called on Hardin, a fourth-year junior who lost the job earlier this season.
SOURCE: The Associated Press