It wasn’t necessarily pretty on the field, but the Florida Gators got off to the start they needed last Saturday night as they held off the Miami Hurricanes, 24-20, before a sellout crowd of 66,543 at Camping World Stadium.
Trailing 7-6, the Hurricanes took a 13-7 lead with 45 seconds remaining in the first half when freshman quarterback Jarren Williams hooked up with Brevin Jordan on a 25-yard pass.
But Florida would score 10 unanswered points in the third period to retake the lead at 17-13.
The big play on the touchdown drive came on a third and seven from the Miami 8-yard line when Feliepe Franks hit Lamical Perrine over the middle for a touchdown on a quick slant.
The teams traded touchdowns in the fourth quarter as Dee Jay Phillips broke several tackles and scampered down the left sideline on a 50-yard touchdown run to give the Hurricanes a 20-17 lead; only to see Franks lead the Gators on a 4-play, 80-yard drive to retake the lead at 24-20.
The big play of the drive came on the first play from the 20, when Franks hit a deep pass over the middle to Josh Hammond, who took the ball down to the Hurricane 15. Two plays later, Franks scored on a keeper from the three at the 8:18 mark.
Although that was the end of the scoring for the night, it was just the start of the fireworks.
On its next possession, the Hurricanes drove down to the Florida 32, only to give up the ball on downs.
Taking over with just four minutes remaining, Franks passed on first down, only to see the ball picked off by Romeo Finley.
Taking over at the Florida 40, the Hurricanes quickly started moving in the wrong direction as a tackle-for-loss, a personal foul for an illegal chop block and two sacks resulted in a fourth and 34. But a pass interference penalty gave Miami a first down Florida 49.
Three plays later, the Hurricanes kept the drive alive with another pass interference penalty.
The Canes would pick up one other first down, but the game ended on three incompletions.
“That was exhausting. I’ll tell you what, though. I really loved the way that our guys continued to battle, continued to compete, continued to try to find a way to win for the entire four quarters,” Florida Gators Head Coach Dan Mullin said. “We talk about our game plan and how we want to win games and we certainly didn’t do that tonight with turning the ball over, with not scoring touchdowns when we get down on the red zone, some critical penalties at critical times. But our guys competed and they competed and they kept competing and kept battling. It seemed like we had to win the game about four different times, but we continued to do that. And so I’m really proud of that.”
Although Florida turned the ball over twice and each team had more than 300 yards of total offense, Miami could do little against a Gator front four that harassed Williams, the young Miami quarterback all night.
The Florida defense recorded 16 tackles-for-loss on the night and sacked Williams 10 times.
The defense also had four pass breakups and recovered a fumble.
First-year Miami Head Coach Manny Diaz knew his team had its chances and failed to capitalize.
“It was a game filled, like most opening games like this are, with a ton of mistakes from both teams,” Diaz noted. “It ultimately came down to a couple of red zone possessions and they were able to capitalize and we were not able to capitalize and ultimately that was the difference in the ball game.”
While the Gators were the winners on the field, Florida Citrus Sports – the organization that put on the game – and the whole Central Florida Community were also the winners.
The game quickly sold out and was attended by many out-of-town fans. As the one –Division-1 game being played that day in the continental United States (Arizona played at Hawaii that night) the contest enjoyed a captive national audience on ESPN.
ESPN announced the game produced a 4.1 rating, the highest of any ESPN program in four years. Birmingham (18.7), Jacksonville (17.0), West Palm Beach (11.7), Tampa (10.4), Miami (10.0) and Orlando (9.4) all produced huge television ratings for the game.
It was the third pre-season Kickoff Classic produced by Florida Citrus Sports and was preceded by the Florida State vs. Ole Miss game in 2016 and the Alabama vs. Louisville game last year.
“These games are great for college football and great for the Central Florida community,” FC Sports Executive Director Steve Hogan said. “They are a showcase for our organization, our stadium and the entire Central Florida community. We will continue to pursue additional opportunities in the future.”