There have been some wild Florida-Tennessee games in the recent installments of this rivalry, but this was a new level of wackiness.
After a frantic, turnover-plagued beginning, No. 19 Florida emerged from the scrum with a 31-17 victory over the Volunteers in front of 90,074 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. It was the Gators’ ninth consecutive win in the series, and they got it despite committing major mistakes in the opening minutes and losing their starting quarterback.
“We’ve shown some pretty good resolve around here and continued to play for 60 minutes,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “Keep playing for your teammates and good things are gonna happen.”
He was asked if he had been involved in such a bizarre start to a game and replied, “I’d like to not do it again.”
Messiness aside, the Gators (2-1, 1-0 in the SEC) bounced back from their 21-16 loss to Miami two weeks earlier and opened conference play with a win over downtrodden rival Tennessee (2-2, 0-1). The pressing question is whether they can keep that progress going now that starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is out for the season with a fractured fibula in his right leg. Florida will go with junior Tyler Murphy in his place.
The Gators and Volunteers combined for seven turnovers in the first half and nine overall. That total does not count Florida punter Kyle Christy’s mishandling of a snap that resulted in the Volunteers taking over on downs at the Gators’ 15-yard line. That occurred on the opening possession of the game. It got slipperier for both sides from there.
Two plays later, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler shot straight into the backfield and knocked the ball loose from Volunteers running back Raijon Neal, then scooped it up for the takeaway.
Driskel drove the Gators into Tennessee territory before throwing an interception that Vols defensive back Devaun Swafford returned 62 yards for a touchdown with 9:23 left in the first quarter. Tennessee defensive end Marlon Walls caught Driskel from behind as he threw it and rolled Driskel’s right leg while bringing him down.
With Murphy in the game and the extent of Driskel’s injury unknown, the Gators managed to stay level. They added a field goal before the end of the first quarter and took a 10-7 lead early in the second when Murphy hit Solomon Patton on a screen pass for a 52-yard touchdown. Florida led the rest of the game.
“I made a conscious effort to keep cool, calm and collected,” Gators center Jonotthan Harrison said. “I wasn’t letting any of that really affect me. Just play the next play.”
The Florida defense kept hounding the Volunteers for turnovers as the offense extended its lead. The Gators had six takeaways, their most in Muschamp’s three years as coach.
In the first half, Florida intercepted Vols quarterback Nathan Peterman twice and recovered two Tennessee fumbles. Tennessee mustered only 31 yards against Florida’s defense, which came into the game ranked No. 3 in the nation.
“They kept us in the ballgame,” Muschamp said. “They let us catch our breath a little bit. Sudden change is part of the game. Our guys understand that they better respond when they get put in those situations.”
The Gators’ defenders did not seem to mind being forced to fight so many fires.
“You keep putting us back on the field and we keep loving it,” defensive tackle Dominique Easley said. “That ain’t a downer for us. We don’t get mad when they put us back on the field. We’ve just got more plays to make.”
Murphy helped the offense straighten out at the onset of the second half with back-to-back touchdown drives. He led the Gators 79 yards in 5:09 for Matt Jones’ 4-yard touchdown run, and they went 84 yards in 5:26 for the next one, which ended on Murphy’s 7-yard run into the end zone.
Murphy’s score put Florida ahead 31-10 with 13:52 remaining in the game, and the game was virtually sealed. The Gators survived.
“No football game will ever be perfect,” Harrison said. “It’s a win.”