GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Go back before the mob scene in the south end zone of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night. Before Tyrie Cleveland came down with the Hail Mary pass. Before Feleipe Franks threw it. Before the play or the timeout that preceded it was ever called.
If you want to understand how Florida pulled off one of the most exciting plays of the 2017 season, beating Tennessee with no time left on the clock, you have to go back much further than that.
You can start two years ago, in fact. Back when Jim McElwain, then in his first season as head coach at Florida, called for the very first time the play he would use Saturday: “Train Right Open, Big Ben In.” It was in the same stadium, on the same 37-yard line, versus the very same team. The characters were different -- Will Grier connected with Antonio Callaway in 2015 -- but the design and the result were exactly the same: a game-winning touchdown against rival Tennessee.
Fast-forward a year, after Grier had transferred in the wake of a positive drug test and Franks was just a true freshman trying to learn the ropes. It was then, during a scrimmage, that Franks first showed off that cannon of a right arm. It was a 70-yard bomb that center T.J. McCoy can still picture clearly, and he swears it was Cleveland who caught the pass. McCoy and his teammates’ eyes went as big as saucers when it happened.
“He’s an athlete, for real,” McCoy thought of Franks at the time.
Fast-forward another year, a year in which Franks rode the bench in silence and a disgruntled Florida fan base steadily grew tired of McElwain's anemic offense. This past summer, Franks and his receivers worked tirelessly behind closed doors to build chemistry. Except one day, someone let the prying eyes of the public in. In a video that popped up on Twitter and every other social media platform imaginable, Franks dropped back inside Florida’s indoor practice facility, planted his back foot in the turf and threw a beautiful, looping, 75-yard touchdown down the right side of the field. Whether Cleveland was the recipient of the pass is up for debate -- the video was grainy -- but the reaction from fans was unmistakable.
“It went viral, hyping up Feleipe,” offensive tackle Martez Ivey said.
The hype didn’t seem to match the results after a dreadful Week 1 loss against Michigan. And if you want to take it a step further, through the first 58 minutes, 51 seconds of Saturday afternoon’s game against Tennessee. Franks hadn’t completed a pass more than 10 yards in the air at the time, and he was coming off an interception that had set up a game-tying field goal by the Vols.
But with 9 seconds on the clock, McElwain called a timeout. He shouted out the play -- Train Right Open, Big Ben In -- and put his trust in his prized quarterback to make something happen. Cleveland told Franks, “Just give me a chance.” But neither Franks nor McElwain were thinking of a touchdown.
To set up a manageable field goal attempt, Franks knew he had to reach Tennessee's 38-yard line. Only the Volunteers covered up the underneath routes and the pocket collapsed. With time running out, Franks bailed. Big defensive end Jonathan Kongbo got a hand on his jersey, but he escaped.
Franks said he thought about tucking and running for a first down. But then, in the corner of his eye, he saw Cleveland streaking downfield. The sophomore had a step on the cornerback -- no more than a yard, really, but enough -- and Franks pulled up, planted his back foot in the ground and heaved.
McCoy, who found himself blocking no one on the play, thought Franks had missed another open receiver. Linebacker David Reese, meanwhile, stopped talking to his position coach mid-sentence on the sideline and stood up in disbelief. Senior running back Mark Thompson said he saw the pass and thought, “Touchdown.”
“I have faith in Franks and Tyrie,” Thompson said.
It was high, looping, beautiful throw from Franks. Cleveland downshifted ever so slightly and caught it like a loaf of bread, clutching it to his chest with both hands as he fell to the turf.
Senior wideout Brandon Powell thought the Gators were playing for overtime, yet there he was, sprinting after Cleveland, jumping on top of him in the end zone. Cleveland lay on the turf for a few seconds, stunned, as Powell slapped his helmet and grabbed his facemask. Before long, the entire team was on top of them, in a pile celebrating the improbable 26-20 victory.
It was supposed to be a simple go route, Cleveland explained later. But the corner pressed, and he ducked inside. The safety rolled out, and it turned into a footrace that the world-class athlete wasn’t about to lose.
“I just ran fast,” he said.
“It’s that simple,” Cleveland reiterated to a stunned group of reporters. “I just ran fast.”
You see, Cleveland had no doubt.
“Oh, I knew I had it,” he said. “I knew I was going to come down with it. I made it my business to come down with it. Yeah, I wanted that ball and I got it.”
It was a moment he’d been dreaming of since he was a child. To make it come true was indescribable, he said.
McElwain, who had spent much of the past week dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, was still reveling in the play when he met with reporters after the game. He said he celebrated his fair share, but mainly he stood in the locker room and watched.
“It had nothing to do about me,” he said. “I enjoyed watching the guys. I just enjoyed seeing them, their excitement, because I know how hard they’ve worked, I know what they’ve put into it. So, to me, it was seeing the people in the organization enjoying the moment.”
He added later: “I’ve got some burned images in my mind that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”
So did everyone else in attendance.
Franks got his signature moment in his first game in the Swamp, and maybe McElwain got himself a new favorite play in the process.
"Train Right Open, Big Ben In" has a nice ring to it.