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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Florida suffocates Volunteers in upset rivalry win

Gators upset No. 11 Tennessee in Southeastern Conference opener

Sophomore cornerback Devin Moore returns his first career interception in the Florida Gators' 29-16 win against the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
Sophomore cornerback Devin Moore returns his first career interception in the Florida Gators' 29-16 win against the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III stood behind his center facing a fourth down. The Florida defense shut down the preseason Heisman candidate and the vaunted Volunteers offense, but the visitors had a chance to regain momentum in the second half. 

The unbearable sea of crowd noise drowned the field as Milton took the snap and handed the ball to halfback Jaylen Wright. The veteran ball carrier needed just one yard to keep the drive — and No. 11 Tennessee’s — hopes alive. 

But redshirt sophomore Scooby Williams sniffed out the play immediately. The Alabama product pounced on Wright in the backfield to kill the play before it started and cap off a dominant defensive display for Florida.

The Florida Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) defeated the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers (2-1, 0-1 SEC) 29-16 Saturday night in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. UF used a 20-point second quarter to race to an insurmountable first-half lead and secure head coach Billy Napier’s first win over a rival.

Sophomore tailback Trevor Etienne had a career day for Florida. The Jennings, Louisiana, product rushed for a career-high 172 yards on 23 carries.

“Trevor was on fire out there tonight,” Napier said. 

Freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III got involved early and often on the Gators opening drive. The talented Tampa wideout had three catches and a rush on Florida’s first six plays of the game.

Wilson suffered an injury in the first quarter and missed the rest of the game.

“Trey is gonna be fine, the x-ray was normal,” Napier said postgame. “He wanted to play, but I don’t think he was ready to play.”

Facing an early 3rd-and-11, redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz rolled right and found Wilson again at the first down marker. Sophomore tailback Trevor Etienne rolled through the left side of the offensive line for another key third-down conversion.

The offense stalled outside the Volunteers’ red zone, however, and the Gators settled for a 46-yard field goal attempt. Redshirt sophomore Adam Mihalek smacked a weak knuckleball that fell well short of the goalposts.

“We didn’t score on that first possession, but we were ready to play,” Napier said. 

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Tennessee capitalized on Florida’s special teams’ mistake on its first offensive possession. Milton feathered a deep ball down the left sideline to wide receiver Squirrel White for 41 yards. 

The veteran gunslinger found receiver Ramel Keyton open in the front corner of the end zone to give the Volunteers an early 7-0 lead.

Etienne immediately responded with a moment of magic for the Gators. The Louisiana product sliced through the left side of the line before racing to the second level. He absorbed a hit from Tennessee defensive back Kamal Hadden before he exploded past the Vols defense for a 62-yard score.

Mihalek’s ensuing extra point was blocked, keeping UT in front by one.

Florida’s defense forced a quick Tennessee punt and gave the ball back to Mertz and the offense. On 3rd-and-5, Mertz had to make a play. The Wisconsin transfer rolled to his right and pump faked a defender. He scampered past and picked up the first down with his feet.

“Some of those third downs were epic,” Napier said postgame.

Mertz made another huge play later on the drive. He found redshirt sophomore Khaleil Jackson along the sideline. The former walk-on receiver reached at full extension to make the grab and barely kept his toes inside the white chalk of the Gators’ sideline. 

Etienne ran through the heart of the Volunteers defense for a 15-yard chunk to get Florida into the red zone. Mertz found senior receiver Ricky Pearsall underneath on another third down to set the Gators up four yards from the Tennessee end zone.

Junior running back Montrell Johnson carried it the rest of the way to give Florida its first lead of the night, though a failed two-point conversion made it a 12-7 game. 

Milton and the Vols returned to the offense, but it wouldn’t be for long. Gators junior defensive lineman Desmond Watson crushed the Tennessee signal caller, and the ball floated from Milton’s hand into the waiting arms of sophomore cornerback Devin Moore. 

Moore ran the ball back deep inside Volunteers territory and a late hit gave Florida the ball at the Tennessee nine-yard line. The Gators got the ball down to the one-yard line, and Mertz snuck behind his big offensive line for a touchdown.

Florida’s defense continued to harass Milton on the ensuing possession. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Tyreak Sapp chased down the quarterback to set up a 3rd-and-20. Tennessee opted to run the ball and third down and punted.

Etienne and the Gators’ rushing attack continued to gash the Volunteers. The sophomore tailback ran the ball four times in a row for 28 yards. Florida went to the air and slipped Johnson to the right on a screen.

The junior running back found all kinds of green grass and cruised to the endzone. 

Tennessee finally rediscovered its offensive groove after the Gators touchdown. Wright scuttled through the defense to get the Vols at midfield. A stuffed run forced another third down, and the raucous crowd forced a timeout.

Milton’s third-down pass skipped across the turf to the feet of his receiver and Tennessee had to punt the ball away again. Florida entered the half with a commanding 26-7 advantage. 

The Volunteers offense picked up a pivotal first down thanks to a great effort after the catch from White. Tennessee faced a short third down at midfield, but the crowd once again forced a timeout. 

Receiver Bru McCoy picked up a first down on a quick sweep after the stoppage.

The Vols faced another third down, but tight end McCallan Castles moved early and pushed the offense back to a 3rd-and-9. The extra yardage didn’t disrupt Milton who delivered a strike to McCallan for a first down.

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel was forced to call another timeout with the play clock winding to zero before a crucial 3rd-and-7. 

Milton looked for McCoy an inbreaking route to pick up the first, but redshirt junior cornerback Jalen Kimber jumped the route and broke up the pass. The Vols settled for a field goal to make it a 26-10 game. Three plays later, Florida punted the ball back to Tennessee for the first time in the game. 

The Vols quickly pushed into Gators territory with a perfect pass down the seam to receiver Dont’e Thornton Jr. 

Florida’s defensive front held firm against the run and forced a fourth down inside the red zone. Tennessee tried to run to the left, but Williams shot the gap and wrapped Wright down in the backfield to get the Vols offense off the field.

Milton and the offense quickly got the ball back after another Gators’ punt. The Vols crossed midfield, but an illegal blindside block pushed the visitors back to their 35-yard line. After a quick run and completion, Tennessee faced another fourth down. 

The Vols quarterback had plenty of time to throw the ball, but no receivers came open and Milton’s pass sailed out of bounds. Florida retook possession to start the fourth quarter.

The Gators leaned on their running game and drove the ball deep into the Tennessee red zone. However, Florida couldn’t cash in from close range and settled for a 27-yard field goal from sophomore Trey Smack.

Milton resurrected the Volunteers on the next play. The redshirt senior quarterback waited patiently in the pocket before he launched a rocket into McCoy’s waiting arms for a 55-yard scoring toss. Tennessee failed the two-point conversion and trailed by 13 with 8:41 to play.

The Vols shut down Florida’s rushing attack and seemingly forced a punt. But Napier kept his offense on the field, needing one yard to pick up a first down. 

The Gators lined up, and Tennessee lineman Kurott Garland did the one thing he couldn’t do in that situation: jumped offsides. The mental lapse gave Florida a first down, but the Gators punted the ball away three plays later.

A 24-yard mishit kick from redshirt sophomore Jeremy Crawshaw set the Vols up at their own 33-yard line. Back-to-back completions to McCoy pushed Tennessee across midfield. Another quick strike had the visitors on the doorstep of the red zone. 

Two incompletions to the end zone set up a 3rd-and-10. Milton sailed the pass over the end zone to set up a make-or-break fourth down. The Gators pass rush swarmed Milton and caused an errant pass into the turf.

Florida ran the clock out of the game, but the final play ended in a messy scuffle. A late shot by a Tennessee defender on Mertz led to an altercation in the end zone between several players from both teams.

The game was called and the players ran to the tunnel. But the referees brought back the play and due to a penalty on the play. Milton kneeled out the clock after the incident.

“That was probably the weirdest ending to a game I’ve ever had,” Mertz said. “I guess that’s Florida-Tennessee.”

The Gators will return to the Swamp next Saturday for a non-conference matchup against the Charlotte 49ers. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

Contact Topher Adams at tadams@alligator.org. 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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