GAINESVILLE, Fla.-- Florida's defense intercepted Jay Cutler four times and sacked him twice, and freshman quarterback Chris Leak threw for 179 yards to lead the No. 17 Gators to a 35-17 Homecoming win Saturday over Vanderbilt at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The win kept Florida in contention for the SEC Eastern Division crown.
After falling behind 21-10 at halftime, Vanderbilt gave the Gator faithful some nervous moments in the second half, but could never cut the lead to less than 11. Placekicker Patrick Johnson missed a 33-yard field goal that would have cut UF's lead to 28-20 with 5:46 left. With Vandy driving inside the final minute, Keiwan Ratliff picked off a Cutler pass and returned it 52 yards for the Gators' final touchdown.
The loss was Vanderbilt's (1-9, 0-6 SEC) eighth in a row, and 23rd straight in SEC play. Florida improved to 7-3, 5-2 in the SEC.
"There were too many opportunities missed, and situations that we didn't rise to," said Vandy Head Coach Bobby Johnson. "That disappointed me a little bit."
After letting the Gators move the ball almost at will in the first half en route to 21 first-half points, Vanderbilt's defense settled down a bit and limited Florida's offense to a single second-half touchdown. The defense also produced three second-half turnovers, as Dominique Morris and Andrew Pace both intercepted Leak, and Pace recovered a fumble.
But the Commodore offense never could establish a consistent ground attack, as a stout Florida defense held Vandy to 133 yards rushing on 45 attempts for a meager 3-yard average. Cutler was Vandy's leading rusher with 36 yards-- but the sophomore had one of his poorer outings in the passing game. His final stats: 38 attempts, 18 completions, 2 touchdowns, 4 interceptions.
Vanderbilt scored first, and reversed a recent trend of falling behind quickly in the first quarter. When punt returner Keiwan Ratliff muffed a catch of Abtin Iranmanesh's first punt, Matthew Tant covered it on the Gator 15. Two plays later Cutler gave Vandy a 7-0 lead when he found Erik Davis in the front corner of the end zone from 14 yards out-- and the Homecoming crowd fell unusually silent.
Vandy's lead proved short-lived, however-- Chris Leak, the 18-year-old true freshman getting only his sixth college start, responded by leading the Gators on an 80-yard drive, and scored the touchdown himself on a dive from six inches out.
Ratliff later atoned for his earlier bobble by returning Vandy's next punt 23 yards to the Commodore 49. Leak, running a no-huddle offense, quickly put the Gators in the red zone with a 34-yard pass to O. J. Small, and beat a Vandy blitz by throwing a 12-yard screen pass to Ciatrick Fason for a score. The Gators led 14-7 after one quarter.
Late in the half Vanderbilt drove to the Florida 20, and redshirt freshman Patrick Johnson connected on the first field goal attempt of his Vandy career, a 37-yarder. But Florida would answer with another precision-engineered 80-yard drive-- the Gators moved downfield behind a series of underneath passes by Leak, and scored on 5-yard a Carthon run with 0:20 left.
"We just allowed them to come down there and score an easy touchdown and let them go up 21-10," Johnson said. "That was a big three minutes right there. If we could have risen up and made a stop right there and been down 14-10, that would have been big for us in the second half."
But Johnson would take one shot at the end zone before the half ended. After Kwane Doster returned Florida's kickoff to the Vandy 45, Cutler attempted a long Hail Mary pass to Brandon Smith-- but it was intercepted by Daryl Dixon on the 2-yard line as the half ended.
Vandy avoided going down 28-10 early in the third quarter when Dominique Morris picked off Leak at the Vandy 13-yard-line. But the Commodore offense came out sluggish. Late in the third, the Gators capitalized on Dixon's second interception of the day, and pushed the lead to 28-10 on a four-yard Ran Carthon run up the middle.
Cutler and the offense finally seemed to ignite early in the fourth quarter after Andrew Pace recovered a fumble at the Vandy 42. The Commodores moved 58 yards in 12 plays, converting once on a third-and-2 and once on a fourth-and-1. Cutler set up the score with an 18-yard pass to fullback Clark Lea, then hit Matthew Tant in the end zone on third down from two yards out.
Trailing 28-17 with 7:58 left, the Commodores needed a turnover-- and they got it. On Florida's first subsequent play, Andrew Pace stepped in front of a Gator receiver at the Vandy 30 and picked off a Leak pass. But the Commodores couldn't capitalize, as Patrick Johnson's 33-yard field goal attempt went wide left.
After a Florida punt, Vandy would get the ball back once more, on its own 20 with 3:17 left. Throwing mostly from the shotgun, Cutler moved the team to midfield before Ratliff stepped in front of one of his passes. The swift, All-SEC cornerback's 52-yard return put an exclamation point on Florida's Homecoming victory with 56 seconds left.
Vanderbilt (1-9, 0-6) has two more chances to avoid an 11-loss season, the first in school history. The Commodores return home next Saturday to face Kentucky in the final home game of the year, and conclude their season vs. Tennessee in Knoxville on Nov. 22.
"I expect our guys will come out and work hard this week and give it everything they've got," said Johnson. "I have no doubt in my mind."
Running back Kwane Doster suffered a shoulder injury in the third quarter and did not return to the game.
On a fourth-quarter 18-yard completion to Clark Lea which went to the Gator 2, Jay Cutler was knocked viciously to the ground and replaced by Steven Bright for one play. Three plays later, Cutler threw his second touchdown pass of the game, a 2-yarder to Matthew Tant.
Three of Abtin Iranmanesh's kickoffs went out of the back of the end zone or were downed in the end zone, resulting in touchbacks.
Keiwan Ratliff's interception was his eighth of the season, setting a Florida school record.
Florida has now won 13 consecutive games vs. Vanderbilt. The Gators last lost to the Commodores in 1988.