GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It started with arguably Tennessee‘s best offensive drive of the season, but not much else went right for the Vols on Saturday night.
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium remained a house of horrors for No. 11 Tennessee. A 5-point underdog at home, Florida rushed for more than 175 yards and jumped out to a big lead on its way to a 29-16 upset.
The loss extended The Vols’ road losing streak to the Gators to 10 games.
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Tennessee (2-1, 0-1 SEC) struggled to maintain its first quarter momentum, which was hindered by missed tackles, penalties and an abysmal performance from the offensive line.
Quarterback Joe Milton III finished 20-of-34 passing for 287 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Tennessee was held to 106 yards on the ground.
Florida (2-1, 1-0) quarterback Graham Mertz was 19-of-24 for 166 yards and a score and running back Trevor Eitenne ran for 172 yards and a touchdown.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Florida moved the ball on its opening drive, converting on third down three times and reaching the Tennessee 23-yard line but two tackles for loss from Aaron Beasley and Gabe Jeudy-Lally forced the Gators to attempt a 46-yard field goal that fell short and left them empty-handed.
Tennessee put together a textbook drive. The Vols went 71 yards in two minutes, including a 41-yard pass from Milton to Squirrel White. Ramel Keyton hauled in an 11-yard toss from Milton in the end zone on the next play to give Tennessee a 7-0 lead.
Florida answered with a quick drive of its own. On first down, Trevor Eitenne busted through the Vols’ defense for a 62-yard touchdown run but the ensuing extra point was blocked to keep Tennessee in front, 7-6.
After Tennessee’s second drive stalled out, Florida put together a long, methodical drive that ate up 14 minutes of clock. It was capped by a Montrell Johnson Jr. run to put the Gators ahead, 12-7 but the two-point try failed.
Florida added to its lead off of Milton’s first Tennessee career interception. The return set the Gators up with a short field inside the 10 and Mertz scored on a keeper up the middle to make it 19-7.
Mertz avoided a sack and found Johnson for his second touchdown, an 18-yard catch and run to swell Florida’s lead to 26-7 just before halftime.
Tennessee drove as far as far as the Gators’ 25 on its first drive of the third quarter but settled for a Charles Campbell 42-yard field goal to cut its deficit to 26-10. Florida’s offense stalled for much of the quarter, but the Vols failed to convert on fourth down twice.
Florida continued to drain the clock, putting together five-plus minute drive inside the 10 and a Trey Smack field goal extended its advantage to 29-10 with less than 10 minutes left.
Milton provided some late momentum with a 55-yard touchdown pass to Bru McCoy that pulled Tennessee within 29-16 but Milton was run out of bounds on the two-point attempt.
PLAYS OF THE GAME
Tennessee’s opening trek down field was the closest the resemblance to last season’s offense to this point in 2023.
White ran open down the sideline for a first down and Milton linked up with Keyton for the second time in as many weeks for the go-ahead touchdown for what looked like an early statement, but the Vols struggled to replicate that success the rest of the way.
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Omarr Norman-Lott made an impact on special teams, blocking Florida’s field goal on its first drive and knocking down an extra point preserved Tennessee’s lead briefly.
Two Tennessee wide receivers scored in Keyton and McCoy. It was the first touchdown of the season for McCoy and helped the Vols cut into Florida’s lead late. Dont’e Thornton Jr. made the most of his targets in the second half. He finished with three catches for 53 yards.
Campbell was 3-of-3 kicking in Tennessee’s 30-13 win vs. Austin Peay last week and continued to show consistency with his 42-yard first half boot in a tough road environment.
Tennessee returns to Neyland Stadium for its third non-conference game against UTSA.
The Roadrunners won 11 games last season but are off to a 1-2 start, falling to Army in its last outing.
Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. ET on SEC Network.
Noah Taylor, VolReport.com