Florida vs. Tennessee score, takeaways: Gators swamp No. 11 Vols in key rivalry win for Billy Napier

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 17, 2023
Florida vs. Tennessee score, takeaways: Gators swamp No. 11 Vols in key rivalry win for Billy Napier

Image Credit: UAA

Angry and motivated, the Florida Gators and their fans combined to take their frustrations out on the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers as The Swamp and its creatures came alive to fuel a 29-16 victory on Saturday night in Gainesville, Florida. The Gators won their 10th straight game over the Vols at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and now move to 17-2 in the last 19 meetings between the long-time SEC East rivals.

A complete effort from the offensive and defensive sides of the ball — yes, special teams remains an issue — gave Tennessee no room to breathe after its opening possession. Florida scored 26 straight points in the first half with touchdowns on four consecutive drives to blow open the game before taking its foot off the gas in the second half.

Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz put together a terrific managerial performance, completing 19 of 24 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne broke open the game with a 62-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter on his way to a career-high 172 yards on 23 carries. Not to be left out, junior RB Montrell Johnson Jr. scored a pair of touchdowns.

The result? The first rivalry victory since donning the orange and blue — technically, he wears black — for Gators head coach Billy Napier, who went winless in such meetings last season. Florida also broke a streak of six straight defeats to AP Top 25 opponents, improving to 2-7 under Napier in such games.

Let’s take a look at everything that went right — and what went a bit wrong — for the Gators in their thrilling victory over the Vols in The Swamp on Saturday night.

Refreshing (the) offense …

Napier has endured well-deserved criticism during his tenure as Florida’s coach — particularly in this space — for his vanilla and far-too-conservative play calling. His unwillingness to aggressively push the ball down the field, develop unique plays and take advantage of extra possessions has been immensely frustrating and likely played a role in a few Gators’ losses.

In the first half against Tennessee, it felt almost as if someone else was making offensive decisions. Florida employed a bevy of pre-snap motions and shifts that bewildered Tennessee. The Gators moved the ball not only effectively but efficiency, gaining chunk yardage while chewing up the clock.

Mertz was exceptional, converting multiple third downs with his arm — by threading passes in tight windows — and another with his legs thanks to a perfectly timed pump fake while out of the pocket. (UF was 7 of 8 on third down in the first half.) Napier focused the offense almost entirely on freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III during the game’s first drive with Wilson catching five balls for 45 yards, including three first downs. He was responsible for 74% of Florida’s offense on that drive. And then, once Etienne got rolling, Napier stuck with the hot hand in the backfield.

The results were obvious: The Gators outgained the Vols 281-122 (135-30 rushing) in the first half, nearly doubling the total plays (42-22) and dominating time of possession (21:42-8:18). It was basically everything critics and Florida fans have been demanding from the offense over the last year-plus as we (and they) lambasted Napier for his stubborn refusal to hire an offensive coordinator. The end result was easily the best half of football called by Napier in his Gators logo black polo.

… for one half

And then came the second half. With a 26-7 lead at the break, Napier completely took his foot off the gas. Injuries to Wilson (collarbone, X-rays negative), Johnson (lower body, returned to the game) and Mertz (injured fingers on both hands) likely played a role, but it was obvious that Napier’s plan was to run clock and rely on the defense. (Literally — UF only threw four passes in the entire second half.) The Gators ultimately lived up to that task (more on that below), but the offense was simply far too conservative against a team with as quick twitch an offense as the one the Vols brought to Gainesville. (UT had touchdown-scoring drives of 2:01 and 1:14 in the game.)

Three of Florida’s five second-half drives did not include a first down achieved by the offense. The other two were a key field goal drive and the final series of the game. The script flipped completely with Tennessee outgaining the hosts 271-68 (195-20 passing) with far more plays (41-25).

“I was probably a little bit too conservative in the second half,” Napier admitted after the game. “But that being said, when it’s a three-touchdown game and your defense is playing well, you want to get to the house with a win.”

(Napier did make an Incredible call putting the offense on the field for fourth-and-1 at the UF 34. His goal was to create an offsides penalty by feigning a snap … and it actually worked.)

The results proved out — no doubt about it — but given the speed in which the Vols were able to strike from a scoring perspective, the strategy absolutely could have cost the Gators if a mistake or two were made down the stretch. Napier’s conservative approach has been a source of frustration before, and now that observers know he actually can be creative and draw up interesting, exciting and effective offense, in some ways it creates even more questions about the past.

Hungry, hungry defense

While it was not a complete performance from Florida on Saturday night, there’s no question this unit is playing far hungrier under defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong. The Gators flew around the ball, busted through the Vols’ offensive front and gave consistent, high-level effort on every play, even shaking off explosive plays at inopportune times. Let’s look at some of the highlights.

  • Sophomore cornerback Devin Moore registered the Gators’ first takeaway of the season with a second-quarter interception of Vols QB Joe Milton (his first since 2020). Junior defensive tackle Desmond Watson swallowed Milton in the pocket with the ball wobbling into the air for a .500-style catch by Moore, who returned the pick 39 yards. A 15-yard penalty was tacked on giving Florida possession at Tennessee’s 9.
  • Redshirt junior Jalen Kimber and freshman safety Jordan Castell each had key pass breakups. Castell shined with a game-high 10 solo tackles (four solo), while Kimber’s PBU forced a field goal after one of the Vols’ best drives of the game.
  • Redshirt sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams came through with a 3-yard tackle for loss to force a turnover on downs during a fourth-and-1 attempt at UF’s 17. This came after a teammate allowed a 43-yard reception earlier in the drive.
  • Junior EDGE Princely Umanmielen chased down Milton and ran him out of bounds on a 2-point conversion on Tennessee’s lone touchdown of the second half. This after a teammate got beat for the 55-yard score.
  • Junior defensive lineman Cam Jackson gave Tennessee’s blockers fits all night, pushing through for five solo tackles. Only Williams (six) had more.

Despite all the due praise for the defense, Florida’s secondary gave up numerous explosive plays over the top. Three different Tennessee receivers caught respective passes of 55, 43 and 41 yards with Milton throwing for 287 yards and two touchdowns. Those will absolutely kill the Gators against better teams, and Florida has now allowed four true explosive plays through the air (one against Utah).

Not-so-special teams

Napier may have earned himself a break on the offensive coordinator demands after the Vols win, but it remains obvious that the Gators are badly in need of a true, on-field special teams coordinator. In what continued a seemingly endless trend of correctable errors, Florida made numerous mistakes on special teams that not only took points off the board but cost them field position in the game.

Redshirt sophomore kicker Adam Mihalek got a 46-yard field goal and extra point blocked in the first quarter. Napier admitted after the game that both were procedural errors. Sophomore K Trey Smack – who unlike Mihalek was recruited and signed under scholarship – replaced him and completed the game with a perfect performance, including a 27-yard field goal. Most observers have long wondered why Smack did not have the job to himself, but beyond that, Mihalek left four points on the board. The game should have been 7-7 and could have been 10-7 after the first quarter; instead, Florida trailed 7-6.

(Napier curiously decided to go for two on the Gators’ second touchdown of the game. It was an odd decision to chase points that early and left Florida leading 12-7 after the 2-point conversion failed. That is not a special teams error, but it was a surprising call nonetheless.)

Junior punter Jeremy Crawshaw did not have a great night, either. Though he did open with a perfectly fine 46-yard boot early in the game, he had disappointing 38-yard punt in the third quarter and followed with a shanked 24-yard punt in the fourth quarter that could have been disastrous.

Special teams used to be a source of pride for the Gators, which were able to boast the nation’s best specialists, successful return teams and units able to block kicks and punts — game changers able to make game-changing plays. Napier’s GameChangers appear to frequently be changing games for the worse.

Odds & ends

Florida improved to 32-21 all-time against Tennessee with a 17-2 record in the last 19 meeting and 17-5 record on Florida Field … the Gators have won 10 straight over the Vols in The Swamp and not lost consecutive games to UT since 2003-04 … Florida improved to 3-5 under Napier when opponents score first … the Gators are now 7-0 under Naiper when leading after the third quarter and 8-2 when rushing for at least 150 yards … Florida is now 2-6 against AP Top 25 opponents under Napier, 8-16 since 2018 … the Gators have scored in 439 consecutive games, an NCAA record

What it means

Relying on internal motivation and the external pressure provided by a rabid crowd in The Swamp, Florida picked up an important victory not just as it relates to its prospects this season but the tone and tenor around the program. The Gators have the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation, according to 247Sports, and a bevy of major prospects were on hand Saturday night. Rebuilds start with adding top-tier talent, and Napier put a tremendous product on the field not just for the fans but the prospects, and Florida’s victory shows what is possible when the program is running hot.

The victory was obviously important for the 2023 season as well. It’s possible the Gators find themselves ranked in the AP Top 25 on Sunday as their lone loss is to then-No. 7 Utah, but that’s not too important. Key is that Florida knows it can win games against talented opponents, which will serve it well in two weeks when it visits a Kentucky team that has recently given UF fits. If the Gators can keep up this level of play, it is possible they can stand 6-1 entering the Florida-Georgia game on Oct. 28. The end of the season will be much tougher — starting that week — but a start like that would silence a lot of doubters.

What’s next?

Florida hosts Charlotte next Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in a game that will air live streaming only on ESPN+ and SEC Network+. It marks the fourth straight night game for the Gators to open the 2023 season.

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