GAINESVILLE — it wasn’t pretty, but for a Florida football team facing a five-game losing streak for the first time since 1979 it didn’t matter.
The Gators escaped the Swamp with a 26-21 homecoming victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday and can breathe a little easier for a few days until they face South Carolina.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp looked more relieved than elated. He was facing a team that had won only once in 20 games in Gainesville and had dropped 20 straight to the Gators.
“It’s never as good or as bad as it seems,” Muschamp said. “I’m looking at the big pictures — the entire season as we move forward. We need to understand where we’re going from here on out and notice where we’re going. I have seen some improvement and some steps back.”
The most disturbing thing for Muschamp was his second-half defense, which let Vanderbilt back into the game after the Gators had taken a 20-7 lead into the fourth quarter. on the positive side, the offense showed some life, and Florida cut down its penalties.
“We are building our battle scars right now and these guys have pulled together. We will benefit from the tough times we are traveling through,” Muschamp said.
Florida built a comfortable cushion on the arm of quarterback John Brantley and legs of running back Jeff Demps and then held off a fast-charging Vanderbilt offense.
Brantley took advantage of a Vanderbilt defense that allowed 879 yards passing and eight touchdowns through the air in its last three games while opposing quarterbacks completed 72 of 111 attempts.
In his second game back following a severe ankle injury, Brantley threw for 173 yards, and Demps rushed for a career-high 158 to give the Gators (5-4, 3-4 SEC) just enough cushion to withstand a late rally by the Commodores (4-5, 1-5).
Vanderbilt came into the game ranked fourth in the SEC in run defense, allowing 3.3 yards per carry. But the Gators gashed the Commodores for 197 yards as their running game, which was stagnant during the four-game losing streak, came alive.
Brantley was limited last week when he returned against Georgia and showed a little more mobility on Saturday. his passing opened things up for the run game and sparked a Gators offense that was anemic during the three games he missed, losses to Alabama, LSU and Auburn.
“the month of October was rough for us and to get this first win in the first game of November against a good Vanderbilt team was huge to get some momentum. We have some good teams ahead of us,” Brantley said. “our offensive line and our running backs did a great job of picking up their blitzes, and that allowed us to throw the ball downfield.”
Thanks to touchdown runs of one yard by backup true freshman quarterback Jacoby Brissett and five yards by Demps along with two Caleb Sturgis field goals (one of 55 yards) the Gators held a 20-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Vanderbilt and quarterback Jordan Rodgers took advantage of a confused Florida secondary and put together back-to-back touchdown drives of 78 and 66 yards to cut its deficit to 20-14 with 10:54 left in the game.
Rodgers, who came into the game completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes, connected on 14 of 19 attempts for 220 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
Florida, the most penalized team in the country, had only two penalties for 10 yards, while Vanderbilt was flagged 12 times for 106 yards.
Florida got Vanderbilt to commit a critical offsides penalty late in the game when the Gators had a fourth-and-one at their own 15. after a pass interference by Vanderbilt, Demps broke free on a 52-yard touchdown run that gave the Gators a 26-14 lead with 2:13 remaining.
Vanderbilt answered with a 10-yard TD pass from Rodgers with 1:16 left to account for the final score.
“A two-score game with two minutes left to go, you still play coverage. You have to keep playing at the end of the game. It’s going to be a good lesson,” Muschamp said. “We have to be able to affect the quarterback with four guys rushing. This is defensive line issue. We have got to get a lot of things figured out.
“We want to run the ball. In order to have success in this league you have to be able to run the ball. if you become a one-dimensional team and can’t run the ball, you won’t win in this league.”
Florida Gators hold off Vanderbilt to put end to losing streak