Florida earns significant SEC-opening win against Tennessee
GAINESVILLE — Quarterback Graham Mertz could not miss, Trevor Etienne could not be contained and Tennessee’s high-powered offense could not contend with an inspired, sold-out Swamp as the Gators seized control and then held on for an SEC-opening win.
It added up to a 29-16 decision against No. 11 Vols and a long-awaited SEC signature win for embattled coach Billy Napier.
Coach Josh Heupel’s Vols’ rallied but could not overcome mistakes and missed opportunities. An offsides penalty by defensive tackle Kurott Garland with UF facing fourth-and-1 from its 34-yard line extended the Gators’ drive and allowed them to chew up valuable time, leaving the Vols just 3:49 when they got back the ball down 13 points.
Joe Milton’s incompletion on fourth-and-10 from UF’s 25 ended a comeback bid.
Florida (2-1, 1-0 SEC) entered the conference opener as 5.5-point underdogs and losers of four straight games to Power 5 foes. A missed field goal to cap a strong opening drive followed by the Vols’ quick touchdown sent a wave of uneasiness through Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
A 62-yard touchdown run by Etienne quickly supercharged an announced crowd of 90,751, 12th-highest in stadium history. Even a missed extra point did not slow the Gators’ momentum from there.
Etienne’s explosiveness, Mertz’s pinpoint accuracy and composure and a swarming defense riding the crowd’s energy overwhelmed the Vols (2-1, 0-1) as UF staked a 26-7 lead.
A 55-yard touchdown pass by Milton to Bru McCoy cut Florida’s lead to 29-16, but the Gators were able to grind out the win despite generating just 58 yards during the second half.
McCoy: The veteran receiver’s 55-yard touchdown was one of five catches for 94 yards.
Aaron Beasley: The senior linebacker added another tackle for loss to bring his SEC-leading total to seven and finished with eight stops.
Etienne: The sophomore tailback recorded his third 100-yard game and flipped the momentum with a 62-yard touchdown run with UF trailing 7-0. He ended with a career-high 172 rushing yards.
Mertz: The Wisconsin transfer connected on 17 of his first 20 throws. He finished 19 of 24 for 166 yards yards and an 18-yard touchdown throw to Montrell Johnson Jr.
Scooby Williams: The sophomore linebacker’s sixth solo tackle was a big one, leading to a 2-yard loss for Tennessee on fourth down from UF’s 17 with the Vols trailing 26-10 and trying to claw back into the game. Williams finished with eight tackles.
– First-year receiver Eugene Wilson III was the offensive focal point from the jump, totaling 44 yards and three first downs on six catches on the opening drive.
— The Gators were converted seven of their first eight third-down tries after entering the Gators 6 of 19 for an SEC low 31.58% conversion rate.
— Tennessee committed 10 penalties for 79 yards, compared with just three for 20 by the Gators.
— Florida’s kicking woes continued. Adam Mihalek missed a 46-yarder following a solid opening drive and an extra point following Etienne’s long touchdown run. Mihalek is 1 of 3 on field goals in 2023 and just 15 of 24 at UF. Trey Smack replaced him and elicited one of the crowd’s biggest roars when he drilled an extra point to give UF a 19-7 lead.
Edgar Thompson can be reached at moc.lenitnesodnalro@nospmohtge