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Friday, September 29, 2023

Gators seek first signature win of 2023 against rivals Tennessee

Tennessee hasn’t won at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 2003

Junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. celebrates after he scored a rushing touchdown in the Gators' 49-7 win against the McNeese State Cowboys Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.
Junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. celebrates after he scored a rushing touchdown in the Gators' 49-7 win against the McNeese State Cowboys Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

The Gators got back on track after an opening season loss and defeated the McNeese State Cowboys 49-7 last weekend. However, Florida will face arguably its biggest test of the season against No. 11 Tennessee at home Saturday. 

The Volunteers (2-0) are the first Southeastern Conference opponent the Florida Gators (1-1)  will play this season and are undefeated entering the weekend matchup. Tennessee hasn’t defeated Florida at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, though, since 2003.

The Volunteers defeated the Gators in a 38-33 win last season. Florida fought its way back down 38-21 in the fourth quarter and scored twice in the final five minutes of the game, but it wasn’t enough to upset Tennessee on the road.

UF head coach Billy Napier is seeking his first rivalry win at Florida. Napier became the first head coach in Florida history to lose all four rivalry games — Tennessee, Georgia, Louisana State and Florida State — in the same season. 

The Vols began their season with a convincing 49-13 victory against Virginia. Redshirt senior quarterback Joe Milton recorded four touchdowns and 234 total yards. The Volunteers looked shaky in their second matchup against Austin Peay but won 30-13. 

Tennessee struggled to move the ball downfield for most of the first half and led just 13-6 at halftime. UT committed 10 penalties the entire game and failed to distance itself until the fourth quarter.

Volunteers senior defensive lineman Omari Thomas said the Vols held a player-only meeting after practice Tuesday.

The shaky week hasn’t led the Gators to underestimate their opponent.

“We got a team that’s got to work hard between now and gameday to be ready, be their best,” Napier said during a press conference Wednesday. “I think every week is a grind to try to be at your best, you might not be 100, but let’s be the best we can be when we get to gameday.”

Florida is as healthy as it’s been this season and might see the return of junior center Kingsley Eguakan, who was sidelined the first two weeks of the season with an ankle injury he sustained during Fall training camp practices.

“Having him back on the field is great,” sophomore running back Trevor Etienne said. “He’s kind of the field general when it comes to the offensive line. He’s communicating every play.”

Florida’s run game showed major improvements against the Cowboys and recorded more than 300 yards and six touchdowns. Junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. led the group with 15 carries for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman back Treyaun Webb also recorded his first collegiate touchdown and scored another in the fourth quarter for the final score of the game. 

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The Gators’ challenge will be if they can imitate their dominance on the ground against an SEC team with a strong defensive line.

“They’ve got several edge players that I think are significant and can create issues for you,” Napier said Wednesday. “I think they’re exactly what you’d expect from an SEC opponent up front.”

Tennessee has recorded 11 sacks and given up just 2.35 yards per carry in its first two games. The Vols also surrendered just one rushing touchdown so far. 

Florida’s inability to get the ground game going in its first game against Utah was an obstacle it was unable to overcome. The Gators trailed a majority of the game which caused them to rely on redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz to throw the ball. Due to an abundance of penalties, UF put up just one touchdown. 

The Gators kick off the SEC matchup in front of a sold out crowd at 7 p.m. Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

Contact Luke Adragna at Follow him on Twitter @lukeadrag.

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Luke Adragna

Luke Adragna is a third-year journalism student and the Florida Gators football reporter at The Alligator. He is a cat ethusiast and completes the NYT Daily Mini in less than a minute each day.

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