He easily could have taken a bow.
Cleveland hauled in a 63-yard touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks as time expired, and No. 24 Florida stunned 23rd-ranked Tennessee 26-20 in a wild, wacky and sometimes unwatchable rivalry game Saturday.
Franks scrambled away from the rush on a first-and-10 play with 9 seconds remaining and found Cleveland behind safety Micah Abernathy for a Hail Mary that no one — especially the Volunteers — saw coming.
“Growing up, I always dreamed of making that game-winning touchdown,” Cleveland said. “To make it come true is undescribable.”
The final play capped a crazy fourth quarter in which the teams combined for 37 points and little, if any, defense.
“It was a really fun way to end a game,” Franks said. “You grow up waiting for moments like that to happen in your life, and when it does happen, you don’t have any words to describe it.”
Here’s one: Unpredictable.
After watching Florida’s offense sputter all afternoon, there surely were arm-chair quarterbacks everywhere thinking the Gators (1-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) should take a knee and head to overtime. Instead, they burned the Volunteers (2-1, 0-1) with a deep pass for the second time in as many visits to Gainesville.
Two years ago, Will Grier found Antonio Callaway for a 63-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-12 play with 1:26 remaining that propelled Florida to a 28-27 victory.
This time, the play called “Train Right Open, Big Ben In” will go down in Florida lore as one of the most memorable in school history. It gave the Gators a 12th win in the last 13 years against Tennessee and allowed them to avoid the program’s first 0-2 start since 1971.
“We’ve just got to stay as deep as the deepest (receiver),” Vols coach Butch Jones said. “That’s one of those plays that comes around every so often, and unfortunately they made the play and we didn’t.”
Jones surely will face more criticism for his team’s questionable play-calling . Tennessee failed to get standout running back John Kelly the ball on a first-and-goal play from the 1-yard line in the third quarter and again on three first-and-goal tries from the 9 in the fourth.
Tennessee also can blame three missed field goals for not being ahead late. The Gators looked as if they had the game in hand early in the final frame, but found a way to let the Volunteers get back in it.
Franks made one huge mistake: An interception in Florida territory that set up Tennessee’s tying field goal. The Vols failed to find the end zone and settled for three points with 50 seconds left.
Overtime looked to be on tap — and then Franks found Cleveland.
Fellow receiver Brandon Powell was the first to congratulate Cleveland in the end zone. Powell slapped him so hard upside the helmet that it knocked his mouthpiece out. Teammates and coaches piled on a few seconds later. It was a surreal scene, especially for a team that didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first seven quarters of the season.
The party continued inside the locker room.
“It was nothing to do with me,” coach Jim McElwain said. “Sometimes things like that are really special. I’ve got some burned images in my mind that I will carry for the rest of my life.”
There was little to remember from the first three quarters. The defenses were stout, but there were plenty of offensive blunders and head-scratching play calls.
Florida led 6-3 to open the fourth and looked as if it iced the game when C.J. Henderson returned an interception 16 yards for a score. Freshman Malik Davis followed a series later with a 74-yard run. But the touchdown was overturned on review after officials realized Davis fumbled at the 2. Justin Martin caught Davis from behind and knocked the ball loose. It bounced through the end zone for a touchback.
The Vols scored five plays later, cutting it to 13-10 on Kelly’s 24-yard run. But Kelly also made a huge mistake. He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for doing the “Gator Chomp” in the end zone, and the penalty helped the Gators get the ball in Tennessee territory.
Franks found Brandon Powell in the flat for a 5-yard score, capping a 44-yard drive that gave Florida a double-digit lead.
Still, Tennessee kept coming back and figured it would end up in overtime for the second time in three games. Franks and Cleveland didn’t let it happen.
TENNESSEE: Kelly is a beast. The junior ran 19 times for 141 yards. But the Vols need to commit to getting him the ball near the goal line and in crunch time.
FLORIDA: The Gators have issues offensively, but Franks gained some confidence and the Gators may have found two playmakers in Davis and receiver Kadarius Toney — both freshmen.
Tennessee played without electric kick returner Evan Berry and safety Todd Kelly Jr.
TENNESSEE: Hosts UMass (0-4) next Saturday. It’s the first meeting between the schools.
FLORIDA: Plays its first road game of the season, at Kentucky. The Gators have won 30 in a row in the series, the longest active streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision.