The defense bailed out the offense.
Vanderbilt chewed up more than eight minutes and reached Florida’s 6-yard line on its opening drive of the second half but had nothing to show for it. A 45-yard field goal attempt by Carey Spear was blocked.
Yet, the defense responded to make three straight stops that forced a fourth-and-five.
Cue the special teams letdown.
On a fake punt, Florida's Solomon Patton sprinted 54 yards to set up a huge touchdown. The Commodores never recovered, losing 31-17 to the fourth-ranked Gators on Saturday night.
“I don’t think we played well on special teams all night long,” coach James Franklin said. “We just made too many mistakes. I thought we played hard and we had a good plan. But we just made too many mistakes at critical times against a very good football team.”
One week after masterful punting and kicking performances, along with capitalizing on Missouri’s special teams miscues, the headaches mounted for Vanderbilt (2-4, 1-3 SEC).
The first gaffe allowed the Gators (6-0, 5-0) to snatch the lead, one it never relinquished.
After Jeff Driskel scored the first of three touchdowns, Florida lined up in a “swinging gate” formation for the extra point. With a bevy of Florida blockers on the left side of the field, Vanderbilt appeared confused. The Gators pulled out a trick as Trey Burton took a direct snap at the 3-yard line, broke a tackle and sprung into the end zone for two points.
“We weren’t lined up fast enough,” Franklin said. “They went muddle huddle and snapped the ball real quick while we were getting adjusted. We didn’t handle the tempo real well.”
Spear entered with the best field goal percentage (81.8) in the SEC but suffered his first blocked kick of the season.
That set up Patton’s momentum-changing run on the fake punt. Moving in motion, he took a handoff and burst around the left edge. He followed a lone, forgotten Florida blocker and nearly reached the end zone, getting pushed out the 3-yard line. A play later, Driskel scored again to give Florida an 18-7 lead late in the third quarter.
“We don’t cover the widest guy out and now they have numbers, leverage and angles on you,” Franklin said. “... Their athleticism shows up on special teams.”
That certainly was the case on a crucial kickoff return in the fourth quarter.
After Vanderbilt regained some momentum and cut the deficit to 21-14, Andre Debose stole it right back. Florida’s junior wide receiver returned the ensuing kickoff 60 yards, spinning off a couple tacklers and racing to the Vanderbilt 37-yard line. Minutes later, Caleb Sturgis drilled a 26-yard field goal for a 10-point advantage with 5:22 remaining.
“There was a lot of momentum swings,” receiver Jordan Matthews said. “I felt like we did a good job offensively and defensively of putting each other in good position, but then there were just plays that Florida made. They’re a great team.”
On the flip side, there were few opportunities for Vanderbilt to break off big runs on kickoff and punt returns.
Just twice the Commodores began drives beyond their own 30-yard line. Franklin attributed poor blocking on punt return coverage to poor field position.
Matthews fielded six punts but was able to return just one.
“Special teams are just as important as offense and defense,” linebacker Karl Butler said. “It’s a huge facet of the game and [Saturday] they were better than us on special teams. That played a huge role in the outcome of the game.”