Florida head coach Billy Napier and the Gators dominantly turned a corner Sept. 16 against the then-No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers.
The Gators started off on the wrong foot after they surrendered a touchdown on the Volunteers’ first drive of the game. Florida never wavered, however, and rattled off 26 straight points — including a 20-0 second quarter — and pulled off the upset.
The victory secured Napier’s first rivalry win at Florida after the Gators fell to Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana State and Florida State last season. The win also launched the Gators into The Associated Press Top 25 rankings for the first time since they dropped out in the Sept. 24, 2022 poll.
The No. 25 Florida Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) defeated the now-No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers (2-1, 0-1 SEC) 29-16 in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Sept. 16. The matchup marked the second largest crowd in the Swamp in the Tennessee-Florida matchup at 90,751 people.
Gators sophomore running back Trevor Etienne ran the ball 23 times for a career-high 172 yards and added a score on the ground.
Napier said the victory will help build a sense of belief within the team. The win felt like a return on the team’s investment with the work they had put in during the offseason and in practices, he said.
“The thing that it gives you is it validates your plan; it validates what you're selling, to some degree,” Napier said.
The victory not only marked Napier’s first rivalry win at UF but snapped a six-game losing streak to AP Top 25 opponents.
The Gators showed massive improvements from last season as they dominated the Volunteers in the first half, despite early troubles from the special teams and injury troubles.
Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz diced up the Vols all game long and exhibited confidence in the pocket. He finished 19-of-24 for 166 yards and had two total touchdowns.
Mertz emphasized how important it was to execute. The redshirt junior quarterback said Napier always talks about “making the play,” and he thought the team did that.
“I think across the board we saw guys from — young guys, old guys, across the board, guys were just making that play,” Mertz said. “So I'm definitely proud of this group.”
He spread the ball around completing passes to seven different players. The Wisconsin transfer relied heavily on freshman receiver Eugene Wilson III in the first quarter but still found open players after Wilson went down with an injury toward the end of the first.
The running attack also contributed to the Gators’ success on offense. Etienne scored UF’s first points after he exploded up the middle and bounced off a Vols defender en route to a 62-yard touchdown run.
The Gators' ability to convert third downs also contributed to the rivalry victory. Florida came into the matchup just 6-for-19 on third-down conversions. However, Mertz and UF cashed in on the “money down” seven out of eight times in the first half against the Vols.
On Florida’s second scoring drive, UF faced a 3rd-and-12 play. Mertz rolled out of the pocket and delivered a ball to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kahleil Jackson, who clung to the sideline to make the toe-tapping catch for 18 yards and moved the sticks.
Mertz found senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall on a pass to convert another third down, and junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. eventually punched it in to give the Gators a lead they’d never give back up.
“Some of those third downs were epic,” Napier said. “We stayed on schedule. Ultimately, the plan that we had worked.”
Mertz also displayed moxy on a 3rd-and-5 to close the first quarter. He rolled-out and pump-faked to make a Tennessee defender jump and pointed to the player as he jogged to move the sticks.
“It's kind of funny,” he said. “We just talked about it a bunch in meetings. And we're like, ‘Look, if you ever get down there, just try the pump fake.’”
The defense also continued its hot start to the season. New UF defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong has the Gators ranked No. 10 in the NCAA in total defense.
Armstrong’s unit generated one of the biggest momentum shifts in the game. Vols quarterback Joe Milton dropped back to pass the ball but the UF defense quickly broke through the offensive line and swarmed Milton.
Junior defensive lineman Desmond Watson laid a massive hit on Milton as he heaved the ball into the air. The errant pass floated into space occupied solely by the UF secondary. Sophomore cornerback Devin Moore sat underneath the ball and pulled in his first career interception.
Moore raced down the sideline for a solid return and the Gators got the ball at the Vols nine-yard line after a late hit penalty on UT. Mertz eventually punched it in for another UF score.
“Those guys played their tails off, man,” Napier said. “I can't imagine playing much better outside of that first possession.”
The defense only got to Milton for one sack, but pressures and hurries kept the redshirt senior quarterback off balance all night as he only completed 59% of his passes. The loud crowd also disrupted the offensive line for false start penalties which kept the Vols behind schedule.
Tennessee netted 393 total yards of offense but a majority came in the second half as the Volunteers attempted to piece together a late comeback. The Gators' run defense held the Vols' talented running backroom to just 106 rushing yards.
The Gators picked up just 68 total yards in the second half — including just 15 in the third quarter — but the defense held strong only conceding nine second-half points.
“I probably was a little too conservative in the second half,” Napier said. “All that being said, when it's a three-touchdown game and your defense is playing well, you're trying to get to the house with a W.”
The Volunteers managed to move down the field but failed to convert in crucial moments. Florida forced three turnover-on-downs as Tennessee was forced into four-down territory in the second half.
The Gators' young players proved that experience is not necessary to compete at the SEC level. Freshman safety Jordan Castell led the team with 10 total tackles and also made one pass breakup.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams pounced all around the field and made eight tackles including one for a loss on a crucial fourth down stop in UF territory.
Tempers flared toward the end of the game, as a UT defender laid a late hit on Mertz as he knelt the ball to run out the clock. The incident sparked a brief scuffle between the two sides as players ran to Mertz's defense.
“That just shows what this locker room is about,” Mertz said. “I can say from my end, I love every single guy in that locker room, and I'm going to fight with them every single day.”
He noted the bizarre ending to the game but chalked it up to that’s just how it goes sometimes, he said.
Napier’s Gators showed they could not just keep up with the upper echelon of the SEC but also win these crucial conference matchups. The road to rebuilding can be daunting, especially in the SEC, but a key rivalry win over a top-15 opponent is a good start in year two of Napier.
The Gators will take on the Charlotte 49ers at 7 p.m. Sept. 23 in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The game can be streamed on ESPN+ or SEC Network+.
Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.