“They had procedure penalties, and the crowd affected them. ... When this place is sold out, there’s not another place like it in the country.”
Tennessee had five false-start penalties in a game that kicked off with on-field temperatures approaching 90 degrees.
It marked Florida’s 10th consecutive win over Tennessee at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and its first at home over a ranked SEC since beating a No. 8 Auburn team four years ago.
Trevor Etienne rushed for a career-high 172 yards on 23 carries, including a 62-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that lit a fire under Florida (2-1, 1-0 SEC) that burned deep into the night.
The Gators took control with 26 consecutive points in the first half after Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) scored on its opening drive to take a 7-0 lead.
Florida’s balanced attack outgained the explosive hurry-up Vols 281 yards to 122 through the first half, holding the ball 21:42 of the first 30 minutes. Tennessee had bypassed the Gators’ yardage (393-349), but not points, by the end of the night.
The Vols’ last gasp, a fourth-and-10 pass from the Florida 25, fell incomplete with 2:31 left and sent fans to the exits.
“It validates your plan,” Napier said of the win. “It validates what you’re selling to some degree and the things you continue to harp on.”
It was a determined Gators defense, to be sure, having turned away Tennessee on a fourth-and-1 at the Florida 17 with 5-1/2 minutes left in the third quarter to preserve what was then a 26-10 lead.
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton lll, now 5-2 as the Vols’ starter, finished 20-of-34 passing for 297 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
The Gators took their first lead of the night when Montrell Johnson Jr.’s 4-yard TD run at the 9:28 mark of the second quarter made the score 12-7.
The Gators’ defense proved opportunistic three plays into Tennessee’s next drive when Devin Moore intercepted an errant Milton deep ball and returned it 39 yards.
Quarterback Graham Mertz tucked the ball and scored on a 1-yard sneak three plays later, extending the lead to 19-7 and bringing the crowd to its feet.
“I was on the sideline, and I couldn’t hear my coach in front of me, it was rocking,” Mertz said. “The fans truly affected the game.”
Florida’s defense forced a three-and-out to keep the momentum rolling, and the offense proceeded to drive 55 yards on seven plays to score yet another TD.
Mertz, a transfer from Wisconsin, found Johnson swinging out of the backfield for an 18-yard TD pass that closed the first-half scoring. Mertz finished 19-of-24 passing for 166 yards and a touchdown.
Tennessee entered the game a touchdown favorite to get its first win in Gainesville since 2003, when Casey Clausen quarterbacked the Vols. Clausen’s name still brings a chill to Gainesville; his 34-32 upset win in The Swamp in 2001 knocked Florida out of title contention in Spurrier’s last home game leading the Gators.
Heupel’s Vols remain intent on restoring such glory on the heels of last season’s 11-2 run. Many project Tennessee will give No. 1-ranked Georgia its biggest challenge of the regular season when the teams meet in Knoxville on Nov. 18.
Florida has served notice it’s not to be overlooked when it plays Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 28.
The Gators are the last team to beat UGA in the regular season (2020) and emerged Saturday with great momentum, silencing Napier’s doubters in the process.
Many fashioned this as a must-win for the second-year Gators coach, who entered the night 0-4 in rivalry games against Georgia, Florida State, LSU and Tennessee.
Napier delivered, resorting some faith as Florida enters the softest portion of its schedule. The Gators likely will be a favorite in games with Charlotte, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina before a bye week leading into its pivotal Jacksonville matchup.
The Vols return to Knoxville looking to recover from yet another disappointing trip to Gainesville. Tennessee has home games with Texas-San Antonio and Texas A&M on deck before an opportunity for redemption against rival Alabama on the third Saturday of October in Tuscaloosa.