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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Florida can’t make magic happen in Knoxville, drops first road game

The Gators’ defense struggle to contain Hendon Hooker and the Vols offense throughout the game

<p>Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson during the Gators&#x27; game against the Kentucky Wildcats Sept, 10, 2022. Richardson accounted for four of Florida&#x27;s five touchdowns in Knoxville, Tennessee, Saturday but couldn&#x27;t keep pace with the Volunteers offense. </p>

Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson during the Gators' game against the Kentucky Wildcats Sept, 10, 2022. Richardson accounted for four of Florida's five touchdowns in Knoxville, Tennessee, Saturday but couldn't keep pace with the Volunteers offense.

With 0:17 on the clock, UF kicker Adam Mihalek’s onside kick bounced high into the air. 

The Florida Gators had battled back from a 17-point deficit to cut the Tennessee Volunteer lead to just five. No Volunteers made a play on the ball and Florida linebacker Diwun Black reached one hand into the air and snagged the loose ball to give the Gators a final prayer. 

UF quarterback Anthony Richardson completed a pass to redshirt junior Justin Shorter to move the ball across midfield to the UT 39-yard line. After a Shorter drop, the Gators had one last shot at a miraculous comeback. 

Florida’s signal caller dropped back, but pressure got home and forced a weak pass from Richardson fluttered and was intercepted by UT’s Kamal Haden. The Volunteers held on for the victory. 

The Gators (2-2, 0-2 SEC) fell 38-33 on the road against Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC). Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker had a career day, throwing for 349 yards and running for an additional 112. Richardson had a bounceback performance for the Gators, throwing for a career-high 453 yards and adding 62 on the ground, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with the UT offense. 

Florida and head coach Billy Napier came out with a bold approach on offense. 

After a first down pass to start the game, the Gators faced a fourth and inches at their own 39-yard line. Napier didn’t think twice and kept his offense on the field. Richardson kept the ball on a sneak and barely picked up the first.

After moving the ball down the field, Florida faced another fourth down, this time near the Tennessee red zone. Napier once again decided to roll the dice and challenged Richardson to pick up the first down with his legs. He was stuffed on the run, however, and a promising opening drive ended without points. 

The high-flying Tennessee offense got rolling quickly, with Hooker carving up the Gators defense with his legs and his arm. After working down to the Florida 25-yard line, Hooker zipped a pass to his tight end Princeton Fant who moved up the field for a solid gain.

Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller, who was questionable to play in this game with an injury, raced in late and punched the football out of Fant’s arms and sophomore safety Tre’Vez Johnson pounced on the loose football to win possession back.

The Gators got back to work quickly on offense. Richardson dropped back and launched a pearl downfield that just reached the fingertips of senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall. The Arizona State transfer dove for a 22-yard gain. After another first down, UF set up at the Tennessee 35-yard line. 

Two incompletions and a stuffed run later, the Gators were forced to settle for a 50-yard field goal attempt. Former walk-on Adam Milahek’s kick looked good at first, but pushed wide left and missed the mark. 

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Tennessee took the good field position after the missed field goal and marched right down the field once again. Hooker found favorable matchups in the passing game and picked apart the Gators secondary. Once the Vols reached the red zone, Florida’s defense buckled down. 

Sophomore safety Rashad Torrence II broke a bad pass from Hooker on third down to force an incompletion and a field goal attempt for UT. The kick was good and the hosts took the first lead of the game.

UF’s offense stayed aggressive and proactive on the ensuing possession. The Gators faced a 4th-and-1 on their own 45-yard line and Napier made the decision to go for it once again. Richardson faked the handoff and rolled out right. He made a Tennessee rusher miss and fired a dot to a wide open Dante Zanders for the first down.

After picking up the big first down, Richardson dropped back after play action and delivered a missile to his other tight end Keon Zipperer down the field. The senior shrugged off an initial tackle, ran over another defender and slipped through a third tackle attempt on his way to the endzone for a 44-yard score.

It was the Gator’s first passing touchdown of the season and the first of the year for Richardson.

Tennessee answered right away.

On the first play of the next drive, Hooker found a wide open Bru McCoy who took the ball in stride for a 70-yard gain. Hooker scored by himself two plays later, waltzing into the endzone on an option play from five yards out.

Florida’s newfound passing attack kept on the pressure after the Tennessee touchdown. Richardson opened the drive with a 17-yard completion to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Trent Whittemore before launching a beautiful deep ball down the sideline to Pearsall for a 38-yard gain. 

On third down, Richardson found Whittemore again over the middle for 14 yards to set the Gators up in a goal-to-go situation. The Gators’ quarterback took it himself two plays later, sweeping to his right and walking into the endzone thanks to a crucial block from freshman running back Trevor Etienne. 

Hooker and Vols continued to move the ball through the air against the Gator secondary, but Florida’s front seven held firm against the run. Florida made a big stop and forced Tennessee into a 4th-and-8 in UF territory. 

The Vols decided to go for it, and the Gator defense responded with a linebacker blitz. Senior Amari Burney got home and sacked Hooker, knocking the ball free. The fumble was picked up by Miller and UF’s offense took over. 

After one first down, Florida was forced to punt for the first time in the game. Redshirt sophomore Jeremy Crawhaw did his job, launching his kick down the field where it was downed by Shorter at the UT 1-yard line. 

In the shadow of their own end zone, the Volunteers took over down four with 99-yards to go. A second-down run for nine yards gave UT breathing room. Florida forced an incompletion and stuffed a run force third down. The Gators called timeout to try and get the ball back before halftime, but Josh Heupel’s Volunteers made UF pay for the extra time it left on the clock.

On third down, Hooker found Fant for a big first down and on the ensuing play he launched a deep ball down the right sideline for a huge 43-yard gain to wide receiver Ramel Keyton. The Volunteers moved the ball the rest of the way and capped off the 99-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone with just seconds left in the half. 

The Volunteers started the second half with the ball and continued to roll offensively. Running back Jabari Small broke loose up the middle for a 39-yard gain to get UT on the move. Tennessee continued to march down the field and capped off the drive with a touchdown as Hooker dumped a pass off to Small who ran it in from 16-yards out. 

Down 10, Florida’s offense took the field needing a score. On first down, UF’s left tackle Richard Gouraige grabbed a Tennessee lineman’s facemask, resulting in a costly 15-yard penalty. Richardson got the penalty yards back with a strike to Pearsall and running back Nay’Quan Wright picked up a huge first down on the ensuing play. 

The Gators continued to move the ball into Tennessee territory, thanks in part to a 15-yard hands to the face penalty on the Volunteers. The Vol’s defense stuffed Montrell Johnson short on third down, and Florida faced another fourth down.

At the UT 13-yard line, Richardson took the snap and floated a pass to Zipperer for a crucial first down to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, Richardson snuck into the endzone for his second rushing score of the afternoon and a huge touchdown for the Gators. 

Florida’s defense couldn’t stop the Volunteer offense on the ensuing possession, however. Hooker broke free and got loose for a 44-yard run downfield and followed the big run with a 16-yard completion to Fant to get the Vols on the doorstep of Florida’s end zone.

Three plays later, UT punched it in from inches away to push its lead back up to 10. 

A poor kickoff return and a penalty backed the Gators offense inside its own five yard line. Florida played it safe facing a third down deep in its own territory and handed the ball off to Etienne. 

However, the freshman found a rushing lane outside and made a play to pick up a massive first down for the Gators. Two plays later, Florida faced another third down. Napier trusted his quarterback to make a play with his feet. Richardson was stopped short of the first down.

The Gators went for it on fourth down at their own 27-yard line. Richardson dropped back and looked deep down the field. He launched a ball down the sideline and found Justin Shorter for a 39-yard gain.

UF kept driving down and worked the ball inside the Tennessee 15-yard line. Richardson took the snap at the UT 13-yard line and the Vols’ attacked.

The defensive line swarmed Florida’s signal caller  and punched out the football. The Vols fell on it and took over possession.

Tennessee’s offense made the Gators look helpless. Hooker completed a 45-yard pass down the sideline to a wide-open Jacob Warren. The Vols ran the ball right at Florida and sophomore running back Jalen Wright capped off the drive with a touchdown.

Florida’s offense kept fighting, driving down the field to score another touchdown. Richardson completed a 39-yard pass to Shorter and Johnson found space and sprinted into the endzone for the score. The Gators went for two after the touchdown, but Richardson’s pass fell incomplete.

The Volunteers recovered Florida’s onside kick and tried to run out the clock. A barrage of procedural penalties on both sides stalled the game, and the Vols rushing attack couldn’t end the game. On fourth down in UF territory, Hooker rolled right and completed a pass to Fant, but it wasn’t enough for the first.

Richardson and the Florida offense continued to grind despite the long odds. Richardson completed a flurry of deep passes and marched the Gators deep into Tennessee territory. Florida’s signal caller rifled a pass to Pearsall for a late touchdown to make it a one score game.

Mihalek’s onside kick bounced into the air and was recovered by Black to give the Gators a final chance. After moving the ball across midfield, Richardson was hit on his Hail Mary attempt and the final pass was intercepted.

Florida returns to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium next Saturday for its second break from SEC play against Eastern Washington. Kickoff is set for noon and will stream on SEC Network +. 

Contact Topher Adams at Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a third-year journalism major and one of the assistant sports editors for the Spring 2023 semester. He also covered Florida football lacrosse for the paper and loves to follow MLS soccer and professional lacrosse.

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