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Saturday, May 18, 2024

All in the details: No. 20 Florida takes on No. 11 Tennessee in Rocky Top

The Gators look to improve to 3-1 on the season with a win

<p>Florida running back Nay&#x27;Quan Wright celebrates a touchdown against South Florida Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.</p>

Florida running back Nay'Quan Wright celebrates a touchdown against South Florida Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.

Florida head coach Billy Napier wants to focus on creating a culture. 

He invoked Nike founder Phil Knight in his press conference Wednesday, saying Knight started the now $151-billion company with a $50 loan from his father.

“I found out that he actually used to come here to sell the shoes right out of the back of his car,” Napier said. “He talked about playing by the rules… being relentless in his approach. Certainly, that's the type of culture we want to create here with our team.”

“I think it’s important as we approach the game to be well prepared, every detail matters.”

Florida’s preparation will prove critical in Knoxville, Tennessee, this weekend. The No. 11 Volunteers boast arguably the most explosive offense in the Southeastern Conference, averaging the most points (52.0) and yards (553.7) per game in the conference.

Meanwhile, the Gators rank 11th in the SEC in total defense, allowing 373.3 yards per game, and are coming off a narrow victory over USF in which the Bulls scored 31 points and had 402 yards of offense.

Fifth-year linebacker Amari Burney said it was very tough to watch the film from the USF game and see how many mistakes the team made.

“The good part is we know the mistakes that we made and we know how to fix them,” Burney said.

Possibly the biggest challenge facing the Florida defense Saturday is the pace of the Tennessee offense. According to The Action Network, the Volunteers led the country in plays per minute last season with 3.12. This season, they are averaging 2.98 plays per minute, still a blazing pace.

“Tennessee is running plays before the chain crew can get lined up,” Burney said. 

The Volunteers passing attack has been their calling card through three games: Quarterback Hendon Hooker has completed 69% of his passes for 822 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. While this does play into Florida’s strength as a defense — the Gators allow the fifth-fewest passing yards per game in the SEC (178.0) — Hooker is also a threat with his legs. The fifth-year signal caller has 22 carries and two rushing touchdowns so far this season. 

The Gators have struggled to keep quarterbacks in the pocket, allowing 91 yards to Utah quarterback Cam Rising in week one and 102 yards and a touchdown last week to USF quarterback Gerry Bohanon.

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“We just got to lock in and figure out what’s actually going on every play,” senior edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr. said. “A lot of times, myself included, we just don’t know what’s going on sometimes, we have to diagnose it.”

Overall, Tennessee ranks ninth in the SEC with a modest 182.3 rushing yards per game, but the Florida rushing defense has been gashed for 195.3 yards per game — 13th in the conference. However, UF hasn’t allowed more than 200 rushing yards in Knoxville since 2000, and Tennessee has only exceeded 100 yards on the ground in three of the last 10 games at home against Florida.

On the flip side, the Gators have run the ball better than almost anyone, averaging 212 yards per game. Florida’s 6.4 yards per carry ranks fifth in the country. The three-headed attack of redshirt sophomore Nay’Quan Wright (24 carries), sophomore Montrell Johnson (25) and freshman Trevor Etienne (22) has divided up work evenly across the opening three games. 

Johnson has been the most effective, averaging 9.6 yards per carry, good for the second-highest average in the SEC and tied for fifth-highest in the country. Etienne averages 7.5 yards per carry, ranking third in the conference. 

The Tennessee rushing defense is ranked fourth in the SEC, allowing just 83.3 yards per game, but that is buoyed by cupcake matchups with Akron (35 rushing yards allowed) and Ball State (74 rushing yards allowed). In the Volunteers’ only ranked matchup of the season against Pittsburgh, they allowed 141 yards and a touchdown, including 154 yards to Pitt running back Israel Abanikanda.

The run game needs to be effective for Florida to pull off the upset, as quarterback Anthony Richardson has struggled through the air. The redshirt sophomore has not thrown a touchdown this season and has completed just 53.2% of his passes. His 89.01 QBR ranks dead last among starting quarterbacks in the SEC.

Saturday will also be Richardson’s first career road start. He played in the loss to Louisiana State last season in Baton Rouge, throwing for 167 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions while rushing for 37 yards and a score.

Not only is it a rivalry game and the CBS game of the week, but the matchup is also host to ESPN College Gameday. Tennessee fans will be out in full force, and Napier said the team has been creating some crowd noise in practice to prepare for the raucous Rocky Top crowd.

“Playing in The Swamp is a challenge for our defense from a communication standpoint, so it’s just going to be on the other side of the ball,” Napier said. “We spent a ton of time in training camp preparing for those things, and we’ll do our very best.”

Florida’s recipe for success should be simple: Run the ball, keep it out of the hands of the Volunteer offense and subdue Tennessee fans. If the plan is executed and the Gators pay attention to every last detail, they have a chance to turn $50 into $151 billion and improve to 3-1 on the year.

Kickoff is expected at 3:30 p.m. and will be broadcasted live on CBS. 

Contact Michael Hull at Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Hull33.

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Michael Hull

Michael Hull is a fourth-year journalism sports & media major and a sports writer at The Alligator. He hosts the weekly sports podcast and has worked on staff for five semesters. In the past, Hull has served as the sports editor, the men's and women's golf beat writer, the volleyball beat writer and the football beat writer. 

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