GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On his first field-goal attempt since getting injured in the first half at Auburn on Oct. 22, Caleb Sturgis had the distance but not the aim as his 49-yard try late in the first quarter missed wide right.
Sturgis had not played since he strained his right leg against Auburn, missing the second half of that game and Florida’s loss to Georgia in Jacksonville.
Having as good a season as any kicker in the country, Sturgis trotted back onto the field in the final seconds of the first half Saturday against Vanderbilt to try a 55-yard kick into a stiff breeze.
The odds seemed stacked against him. The odds and that breeze in his face didn’t matter as Sturgis joined former Gators kicker Berj Yepremian in the school record books by making his fourth career field goal of 50 or more yards.
Sturgis and Yepremian are the only two kickers in school history who can say that.
“When you get to that 37-, 38-yard line, I'm kicking a field goal,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “There's not a whole lot of kickers in the country you can say that about.”
The 55-yarder was the second-longest of Sturgis’ career, trailing only the 56-yarder he made in 2009 against Georgia. Sturgis added a 40-yard field goal in the third quarter and is now 17 of 19 on the season. He missed the final nine games of last season due to a back injury and was redshirted.
He couldn’t wait to get back on the field for Florida’s 26-21 win over Vanderbilt.
“Last year was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through,’’ said Sturgis, a big bag of ice taped to his right upper thigh. “I went out there against Georgia and I just didn’t feel good enough to where I would help the team. I knew with one more week in the training room that I’d be able to kick.”
The Gators invited more than 20 former captains to their team dinner on Friday night.
Mired in a four-game losing streak and with only three home games remaining for this year’s seniors, the captains spoke about Florida’s rich tradition and their experiences playing for the Gators.
Senior quarterback John Brantley listened closely to what they had to say.
“They just kept stressing that we only have three more times to run out of this tunnel,’’ Brantley said. “And that kind of set home with us. We’ve got to cherish these moments and just go out there and play hard.’’
The Gators improved drastically in committing fewer penalties.
Florida entered Saturday’s game as the nation’s most-penalized team, averaging more than nine penalties and 70 yards per game. They Gators were flagged just three times for 17 yards against Vanderbilt.
“We’ve emphasized discipline in our approach, we talk about it all the time,’’ Muschamp said. “This is one game. I’m not ready in one game to be able to wave the flag that we’re disciplined now.’’
Reducing the amount of miscues has been a big emphasis and Saturday’s performance was the Gators’ best of the season. Their previous low for penalties in a game was four against Alabama.
“Coach Muschamp and all the coaches were very keen on [not] making mistakes and dumb penalties,’’ defensive lineman Earl Okine said. “We worked on that an extreme amount of time.’’
CHANGE AT CENTER
Starting center Jonotthan Harrison was so disappointed in his performance on Saturday that he Tweeted an apology to Gator fans after the game.
Some of Harrison’s shotgun snaps were off, including one that sailed past Brantley in the third quarter for a 21-yard loss. Harrison was replaced by Sam Robey at that point.
“We just need to be more consistent with our snaps,’’ Muschamp said. “And we've had issues throughout the year. So I felt like we needed to make the change.”
Muschamp said the position will be re-evaluated this week in practice. Harrison has started all nine games and has been relatively consistent prior to Saturday.
The most significant injury for the Gators on Saturday came early in the fourth quarter when Brantley left the game after taking a hit on a completion to Quinton Dunbar.
Brantley appeared to hurt his throwing arm and did not return. True freshman Jacoby Brissett, who had taken snaps under center early in the game to help Brantley cope with an ankle injury that cost him two games, finished the game.
Brantley was 16-for-24 for 173 yards when he was hurt.
The Gators were also without starting linebackers Jelani Jenkins (possible concussion) and Lerentee McCray (shoulder) and offensive lineman Chaz Green (ankle). None of those players dressed for the game.
Meanwhile, senior running back Chris Rainey did not play due to an ankle injury he suffered against Georgia.
Muschamp said it was a game-time decision and that he “just didn’t feel comfortable with putting him out there,’’ Muschamp added. “Of course, I had to pull him out several times. He was trying to go in.’’
Sophomore defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd blocked the first kick of his career on Saturday, swatting down Ryan Fowler's 32-yard attempt late in the first quarter. The Gators now have four blocked kicks this season, the other three punt blocks – two by Solomon Patton and one by Rainey … Florida took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter on a 5-yard run by Jeff Demps, capping a 15-play, 85-yard scoring drive that stands as the Gators’ longest this season … Freshman tight end A.C. Leonard made the first catch of his UF career in the third quarter, a 12-yard grab that helped set up Sturgis’ 40-yard field goal in the third quarter … The Gators improved to 64-22-2 all-time on Homecoming, including a 9-1-1 mark against Vanderbilt; Florida’s win was its 21st consecutive over the Commodores … The Gators honored the 2011 UF Athletic Hall of Fame inductees with an on-field ceremony, including former kicker Judd Davis and offensive lineman Keith Tribble, now athletic director at UCF … Florida’s 2011 College World Series baseball team was also honored, as was the 1985 and ’86 women’s golf teams, winners of back-to-back national championships … Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who passed for 297 yards Saturday, is the brother of Green Bay Packers starter Aaron Rodgers. Also a dangerous runner, the Gators limited Rodgers to 20 yards rushing and sacked him twice (Jaye Howard and Ronald Powell) … Brissett’s 1-yard touchdown run for the Gators’ first score marked his first career rushing score.