Head coach Urban Meyer improved to 6-0 against one of his team’s greatest rivals as the No. 7/10 Florida Gators (3-0) overcame a rough start to defeat the Tennessee Volunteers (1-2) 31-17 on the road at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN, on Saturday.
Florida started slow in the first quarter when a poor snap by senior center Mike Pouncey on third-and-long forced the Gators to punt. On the next offensive drive, UF stalled after failing to convert a one-yard run on two consecutive plays, turning the ball over on downs on the Tennessee 46.
With good field position, the Volunteers took advantage of the miscue, drove 25 yards and allowed kicker Daniel Lincoln to curve in a 49-yard field goal to put UT up 3-0 going into the second quarter.
The Gators’ offense was kick-started on its next possession when redshirt junior wide receiver Deonte Thompson helped out redshirt junior quarterback John Brantley with a 16-yard catch for a first down on 2nd and 11. Freshman WR Robert Clark kept the drive alive with an eight-yard reception for another first down, allowing sophomore running back Mike Gillislee to score a touchdown from two yards out.
Tennessee was in the process of going three-and-out on its next drive, until junior cornerback Janoris Jenkins muffed a 43-yard punt giving the Vols the ball at Florida’s 40. However, sophomore linebacker Jon Bostic would bail Jenkins out four plays later, intercepting a pass from QB Matt Simms in the end zone on 3rd and goal.
Going into the half with a tight 7-3 lead, the Gators were hoping to dominate the second portion of the game just as they had their two previous contests. Things seemed to be going well early in the third quarter, when junior kicker Caleb Sturgis connected on a 44-yard field goal to cap a 10-play, 54-yard drive and give UF a 10-3 lead.
That advantage would be short lived as Simms found a wide open WR Denarius Moore for a 49-yard touchdown early in Tennessee’s next possession. Coverage of Moore was blown by redshirt sophomore CB Jeremy Brown, who gave up a 15-yard reception one play earlier and did not receive any help from junior safety Will Hill (starting his first game of the season) on the subsequent play.
With the score tied at 10 and the Gators on the verge of punting from their own 39, Meyer called a game breaking fake punt to turn the tide. Sophomore WR Omarius Hines took a direct snap 36 yards to the Volunteers’ 25, turning the game around. Redshirt senior Carl Moore made a leaping first down catch to keep the drive going, and Brantley competed a seven-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore WR Frankie Hammond, Jr. six plays later to give the Gators a 17-10 lead.
“The momentum switched in this stadium. Once that momentum goes, it’s hard to get it back,” said Meyer after the game about the call. Hines noted the impact of the play to ESPN. “That was a big boost because we really needed that,” he said. “We were struggling in the first half, and I’m glad I could boost the team back up.”
Hoping to redeem himself for his earlier gaffe, Brown intercepted Simms on Tennessee’s next drive. Florida handed the ball back to Gillislee who, five plays and 41 yards later, tumbled into the end zone to give the Gators a 24-10 lead.
UF achieved back-to-back sacks on Simms courtesy of redshirt senior defensive tackle Brandon Antwine and redshirt freshman LB Jelani Jenkins, knocking the Vols back to the one-yard line. Though a safety call was overturned by video replay, Tennessee punted the ball to midfield. The Gators failed to capitalize as junior RB Jeff Demps was stripped by LB Austin Johnson on 2nd down, keeping the Volunteers alive.
Backed up with a 3rd and 25, Simms completed a 19-yard pass to WR Luke Stocker giving his team the opportunity to go for it on 4th down. Stocker’s reception became integral for Simms, who found WR Justin Hunter wide open in Florida’s end zone for a 35-yard touchdown on blown coverage by Hill.
With their lead reduced to seven, the Gators struck again on the very next drive. Thompson caught a 24-yard pass to get the series going, and Moore once again saved the effort by pulling down a 12-yard catch on 3rd and 9 at the Vols’ 27. From the Wildcat formation, freshman QB Trey Burton rushed for a two-yard touchdown four plays later to give Florida a 31-17 lead.
After struggling to get going, the Gators posted 317 total yards of offense, were 8-of-14 on third down and controlled the clock for 36:46. Brantley finished 14-of-23 for 167 yards and a score, Demps took a career-high 26 carries for 74 yards and Gillislee touched the ball eight times for 27 yards and two touchdowns. Thompson led Florida with four catches and 55 receiving yards.
Florida’s defense held Tennessee star running back Tauren Poole to 23 yards and a fumble (recovered by freshman S Matt Elam on 10 carries, but Simms did well through the air, going 19-of-31 for 259 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Gators hope to continue building momentum next week when they return home to take on the Kentucky Wildcats. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.; the game will air live on ESPNU.
– Five-star freshman defensive end Ronald Powell had the first sack of his career.
– Meyer is 6-0 against Tennessee in his Florida career.
– Meyer is now eight-for-eight in fake punt calls with the Gators.
– Hammond’s touchdown was also his first reception of the season.
Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey/Associated Press