Before a Homecoming crowd of 90,222 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, No. 18 Florida rebounded from last week's loss to Georgia by notching a convincing 49-22 Southeastern Conference victory Saturday over the Commodores. Falling behind 35-7 at the half, Vanderbilt limped home with its fourth SEC loss of the season, all but ending any flickering hopes of an SEC East title.
The Commodore defense, ranked third in the SEC and 14th nationally coming in, had few answers Saturday for the defending national champs and their diverse offensive weaponry. And the Commodore offense, still unsteady at quarterback and struggling to find an identity, couldn't seem to get into gear until it was too late.
The Gators' sensational quarterback Tim Tebow, known more for his running than passing, showed little sign of a shoulder bruise that had hampered him the week before. The left-hander deftly avoided frequent Commodore blitzes in throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for two more. His passing dissected Vandy with surgical precision, as he connected on 22 of 27 passes for 281 yards (262 in the first half alone).
Quick-as-a-blink wide receiver Percy Harvin was perhaps even more spectacular, rushing for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries, and hauling in nine passes for 110 more yards. Teammate Andre Caldwell also caught a pair of touchdown passes from Tebow.
"They just took it to us today. They whipped us," said Bobby Johnson, who fell to 0-6 vs. Florida. "We couldn't match up on a lot of things they were doing offensively and had a tough time stopping them. We gave up a big play to start their scoring, and it just went downhill from there."
The Commodores (5-4, 2-4 SEC) still have high hopes for a bowl berth, a goal which has eluded them for a quarter of a century. But Saturday's outcome served as a demoralizing reality check. With the possibility of 11 bowl-eligible teams this year from the SEC, the players all know it may take two more wins in the next three games to earn the 'Dores a bowl spot.
On a cool, sunny afternoon at the "Swamp", it was hard to imagine how this Florida team could have lost three games. In beating Vandy the Gators (6-3, 4-3 SEC) simultaneously attained bowl eligibility and stayed within one loss of division-leading Georgia (4-2) and Tennessee (3-2), both of which played outside the league Saturday.
Florida pounced on Vandy 7-0 in the first quarter with an 82-yard drive on its first possession, capped by a 1-yard Tebow run. A 53-yard Brandon James punt return set up a subsequent 39-yard touchdown drive that put the Commodores in a 14-0 hole.
Mackenzi Adams, back at starting quarterback after leaving last week's game with an injury, set up a touchdown in the second quarter with a 35-yard pass completion to tight end Jake Bradford, and scored himself on a 1-yard sneak. But the 'Dores allowed three more Tebow touchdown passes before the half, and faced a daunting 35-7 deficit at the break.
Vanderbilt fought back gamely in the second half-- but learned quickly that it's hard to drain the proverbial Swamp when up to one's neck in Fightin' Gators. The 'Dores opened the second half by recovering their own onside kick, but could only muster a field goal from the possession. Safety Reshard Langford provided another momentary spark, returning Vandy's only interception of the day to the Florida 42, but again the Commodores couldn't capitalize.
After finally forcing the Gators to punt for the first time in the third quarter, the Commodores muffed the fair catch, setting up a short 12-yard touchdown drive that gave the Gators a 42-10 lead. Vandy was able to scrap for two more meaningless fourth-quarter touchdowns, one on an Adams sneak, and another on a 36-yard return by Darlron Spead of a fumbled snap by Florida's backup quarterback. But the outcome was never close to being in doubt.
It was a long and frustrating afternoon for the Vandy defense. The Commodores, which had led the SEC in sacks, never could get to Tebow and allowed Florida an average of 7.7 yards per offensive play.
Urban Meyer, now 3-0 vs. Vandy, said afterwards he hadn't anticipated defeating the Commodores with such ease. "I told our coaches, that's the best team they've had in years," he said. "They have good personnel everywhere."
The Commodores return home for a sold-out showdown with Kentucky next Saturday (1 p.m. CT, no TV), before finishing with Tennessee and Wake Forest. The already bowl-eligible Wildcats (6-3, 2-3 SEC) were idle Saturday.
"We've got to regroup, which is going to be tough, because we thought that we were going to come in here and play a good game," Johnson said. "But our guys have been pretty tough, pretty resilient, so I expect them to come back from this."
Chris Nickson relieved Adams for two series in the second quarter. Richard Kovalcheck also played some in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. But Adams started and took most of the snaps, finishing 16-of-32 with two interceptions. He scored both of Vandy's offensive touchdowns.
Earl Bennett, the SEC's all-time leading receiver, caught 5 passes for 31 yards to add to his record. He now has 220 receptions in his 3-year career.
The win was Florida's 15th in a row over Vanderbilt. The Commodores have not won in the series since 1988.
Vanderbilt's Bryant Hahnfeldt recovered his own onsides kick to start the second half. It was the first time Vandy had successfully recovered an onsides kick since the 49-42 overtime loss to the Gators in 2005. Hahnfeldt also kicked a 33-yard field goal.