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Friday, September 29, 2023

Florida finally tastes victory in Tennessee tuneup

The Gators snapped a four-game losing streak ahead of their conference opener

The Florida Gators defeated the McNeese State Cowboys in their first home game of the season in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

Florida is a program used to winning. The Gators have won 728 games from their inaugural season in 1911 to a 38-6 smackdown of South Carolina in November last year. But it would take the Gators 307 days to finally add win No. 729.

The Florida Gators (1-1) cruised past the McNeese State Cowboys (0-2) 49-7 Sept. 9. The win snapped a four-game Florida skid and secured the Gators’ first victory of the season. Head coach Billy Napier was pleased with his team’s performance in the commanding win.

“We did some things that were significant statistically, but it really wasn't about that,” Napier said after the game. “I appreciate the response that we saw from the players after last week.”

The win didn’t come as a surprise, though. Florida entered the game as seven-touchdown favorites against McNeese and thoroughly dominated an overmatched opponent. The Gators bludgeoned the Cowboys from the opening kickoff.

Florida ran for 327 yards, including 119 from junior tailback Montrell Johnson Jr. He tallied more yards than McNeese managed as a team. The visiting Cowboys could only wrangle 112 yards for the entire game.

The Gators nearly shut out McNeese, but a fourth-quarter touchdown — after a Florida fumble deep in UF territory — broke the zero.

“The shut-out, as a defense, we were like — that's what we was harping on the whole week,” said redshirt junior cornerback Jaydon Hill. “Obviously we didn't get it done, but we played pretty well defensively I feel like.”

The defensive showing was an early highlight for first-year defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong. Florida’s defense held the No. 12 Utah Utes to just seven points in the second half, and the Gators built on that potential against the Cowboys.

UF allowed the fewest yards in a game since 2016 and lived in the McNeese backfield with six tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.

Florida’s young defensive stars continued to shine. Sophomore linebacker Shemar James has become the talisman for Armstrong’s unit. The former four-star recruit made 19 tackles across the first two games. 

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams recorded his first career sack, freshman edge rusher TJ Searcy made his first tackle for loss and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jamari Lyons devoured Cowboys running back D’Angelo Durham in the endzone for a safety.

“We've got a lot of young players out there playing,” Napier said. “I think those guys will get a little bit better, not only at game day but their routine during the week I think will be beneficial.”

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The youth movement is also being felt on the Gators’ offense. Freshman running back Treyaun Webb saw his first significant action and scored a pair of touchdowns against McNeese. Freshman receiver Eugene Wilson III continues to flash limitless potential with his playmaking and speed.

But while the baby Gators show plenty of promise, the offense is still led by a pair of veterans. Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz built on his 300-yard debut against the Utes with an efficient outing against the Cowboys. 

The Wisconsin transfer completed 82% of his passes for 193 yards and a 50-yard scoring toss to senior receiver Ricky Pearsall. Mertz’s veteran presence has been a calming influence on the offense, Pearsall said.

“Graham is a really experienced guy,” Pearsall said. “Everybody in the room respects him for that, and I think all the guys pull for him.”

But a strong performance against a small FCS opponent was just a warmup game for the Gators. One of the season’s premier showdowns beckons this weekend as the No. 11 Tennesse Volunteers will travel to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The Volunteers haven’t won in the Swamp since 2003, but Florida’s already rewritten its history against rivals in recent seasons. The Gators lost to all three of their primary rivals — Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State — in the same season for the first time ever last year.

Next Saturday will be a platform for Napier to break the early narrative around his Florida tenure and secure what would be arguably his biggest win as UF’s head coach. The Gators’ young roster will have to meet the marquee moment, though, Napier said. 

“A lot of guys have gotten significant experience the first two weeks, and obviously this will be a huge game,” Napier said. “That Swamp will be a lot different next week. It'll be a bigger stage.”

The Volunteers will present a stiff challenge to Armstrong’s defense, especially a young secondary with only three upper-classmen. Tennessee threw for 349 yards and ran for 227 more in a 38-33 win over the Gators a year ago. 

While the Vols passing attack — led by new starting quarterback Joe Milton III — has yet to reach those levels, the running game has chewed through opponents with well over 200 yards in each of UT’s first two games.

Florida opened the 2023 season with a dud in Salt Lake City, Utah. But after a commanding bounceback, the Gators have an opportunity to reset their season against the Volunteers Sept. 16. The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN.

Contact Topher Adams at Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.

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