Following a rough first 30 minutes that left fans wondering whether or not the No. 17/18 Florida Gators were up to the task of winning a second-straight game on the road, Florida (3-0, 2-0 SEC) once again proved that they are a second-half team as they outscored the No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers (2-1, 0-1 SEC) down the stretch to take a hard-fought 37-20 victory on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN.
The Gators gained 227 yards of offense in the third quarter alone and outgained the Volunteers 555-340 over 60 minutes on the way to their eighth-straight victory against their SEC rivals. Florida outscored Tennessee 17-6 in the second half and possessed the ball for nearly seven more minutes over the course of the game.
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel came through big in his second start for the Gators, going 14/20 or 219 yards and two touchdowns while adding seven carries for 81 yards on the ground. Senior running back Mike Gillislee, hampered with a strained groin heading into the contest, carried the ball 18 times for 115 yards including two breakaway rushes that helped lead UF to victory.
After kicking off to start the game and forcing a punt, Florida took over from their own 11 but was pushed back to the two after redshirt junior wide receiver Andre Debose fumbled a pitch on a reverse. The Gators were saved, however, by a 55-yard punt from sophomore Kyle Christy that flipped the field nicely.
Tennessee brought the ball across midfield on its very next possession, but redshirt senior Buck linebacker Lerentee McCray intercepted quarterback Tyler Bray on 3rd-and-12 to get the ball back for Florida. It was the first pick of his career.
The Gators did not waste much time from there as Driskel hit redshirt junior tight end Jordan Reed on a 20-yard pass and junior running back Trey Burton followed that play up with a fake Wildcat handoff that he took 14 yards into the end zone.
Read the rest of his Florida-Tennessee game story…after the break!
Two possessions later the Volunteers got right back in it with a three-play, 60-yard scoring drive. Bray hit WR Justin Hunter 42 yards down the field and was moved closer to the goal line after sophomore cornerback Marcus Roberson committed pass interference in the end zone. Bray then threw a quick slant to Cordarrelle Patterson to tie the game 7-7 with 3:02 left in the first quarter.
Tennessee took over again at the beginning of the second quarter and immediately drove down the field on Florida, converting two long third-downs (of 11 and 10 yards, respectively) and a 4th-and-10 as part of a 16-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that lasted 6:20. It was capped by Bray’s second touchdown pass of the game as he hit TE Mychal Rivera from five yards out.
The Gators got the ball back with 3:19 left in the first half but failed to make the most of some very impressive plays. After Driskel crossed midfield with an impressive 28-yard run on a broken play, he handed off to junior WR Solomon Patton on an end around that brought Florida into the red zone. Gillislee then ran eight yards down to the one but got stuffed twice while trying to get it in the end zone. UF settled for a 20-yard field goal and went into the half down four points following a nine-play, 80-yard drive.
Starting the second half in similar fashion, the Gators drove 68 yards in six plays but got stopped short in the red zone once again. Driskel hit Burton on a 32-yard pass down the right sideline for the drive’s biggest play, but UF settled for a 25-yard field goal that cut their deficit to one with 14:54 left in the third quarter.
The Vols answered immediately, putting together a 12-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that was extended after junior defensive end Dominique Easley got flagged for a personal foul on a 2nd-and-Goal stop at the six. A.J. Johnson took a direct snap into the end zone on third down, but UT missed the extra point to keep their advantage at 20-13.
Florida stalled offensively on their next possession and failed on a fake punt at midfield but forced Tennessee to go three-and-out and punt into the end zone. The Gators took over on their 20-yard line and only needed one play to score as Burton brought a Wildcat snap up the right sideline 80 yards to tie the game at 20.
UF got the ball back almost immediately as McCray hit Bray and forced him to throw an interception that was nabbed by Elam. Florida capitalized in just 1:19, driving 70 yards in three plays to take a 27-20 lead. Gillislee exploded for a 45-yard run on the drive and Driskel hit Reed two plays later for a 23-yard touchdown.
The Gators forced the Vols to stall on defense again and put the game away when they got the ball back. On 3rd-and-7 from Florida’s 25-yard line, Driskel stayed in the pocket and hit redshirt senior WR Frankie Hammond, Jr. for a 75-yard touchdown that gave the Gators a 34-20 lead. Hammond caught the ball at the first-down marker but trekked 65 yards down the field afterward, shedding one tackler on his way to the end zone.
Sturgis tacked on a 49-yard field goal with 6:44 left in the game as Florida shut down Tennessee’s offense from there.
Reed totaled five receptions for 60 yards and was one of six Gators to catch a pass in the game. Elam led UF with 10 tackles (seven solo).
Florida has now begun the season 3-0 for the eight-straight year. Gators head coach Will Muschamp earned his first victory against a ranked opponent (1-5) and is now 2-0 this season when trailing at the half after UF went 0-5 in similar situations last season.
Florida will return home next week when they host SEC East rival Kentucky at 12:21 p.m. The game will air live on SEC Network (check your local listings).
Photo Credit: Associated Press