Rocky Top, you’ll always be, Gator Bait to me. (Photo via Florida Gators)
Rather than utilize their skills to give the Florida Gators a proverbial fight on the football field, Tennessee cornerback Kamal Hadden and his teammates waited until the game was over- and then started a literal fight.
At that point, though, it was too late to make a statement. You know, the one that Tennessee was hoping to make that could change the tides of the Florida-Tennessee rivalry. In fact, the brouhaha only further cemented the status of this series: Florida owns it, especially at home.
Trevor Etienne had a career day with 172 yards on the ground, Graham Mertz was 17-20 in the first half- with two of those incompletions being smart throwaways- and Florida’s defense did plenty as the Gators swamped Tennessee in a game that Billy Napier had to have, 29-16. It’s not that a loss would have put Napier on the hot seat or even the warm seat, but frustrations definitely would have escalated among the fan base had Florida fallen to 1-2 and lost to Tennessee in Gainesville for the first time in twenty years. On the flip side, it’s a win that puts Florida’s season back on track, placing them at 1-0 in the SEC, with all their season goals still very much in play.
Instead, the frustration is exclusively Tennessee’s to feel. The win marks Florida’s 17th victory in the last 19 meetings over Tennessee, and perhaps even more embarrassingly for Tennessee, Florida improves to 30-8 over the Vols since the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War. It’s also the Gators’ tenth victory in a row over the Vols in Gainesville, a place they haven’t won in since 2003.
For those keeping score, it’s now been 7,302 days since Tennessee won in the Swamp- and now, it will be at least another 700 days.
This one had all the trademarks of the Gators’ typical domination of the Vols. Florida rushed for more yards (183 to 100). The Gators’ defense stifled Tennessee’s offense, limiting the Vols to less than 17 points for just the third time in Josh Heupel’s tenure. Florida forced an interception and then a fumble (which Tennessee recovered). And as is usually the case when these teams meet in Gainesville, Florida weathered an early storm- and then blew the Vols away.
Tennessee actually scored first. Joe Milton hit Ramen Keyton over a beaten Jason Marshall for a touchdown to spot the Vols a 7-0 lead. But from then on, it was all Florida.
First, Trevor Etienne broke free for a 62 yard touchdown run. Kamal Hadden had the angle and a chance to stop Etienne for about a 12 yard gain, but instead chose to be lazy, refused to engage his arms, and casually rammed a shoulder into Etienne. That, of course, did not succeed in bringing Etienne to the ground, as Etienne simply bounced off and raced the rest of the way for the score. In the meanwhile, Hadden then decided to perform a somersault in the middle of the field in lieu of giving chase all the way down the sideline. Because this was football, and not a kid’s Gymboree event, the Florida Gators were awarded six points.
Though Adam Mihalek’s extra point was blocked, the Gators took the lead on their next drive. A long, slow, punishing drive that covered 82 yards in 14 plays- featuring one of the coldest pump fakes in recent memory by Graham Mertz- ended in six more points when Montrell Johnson slammed his way into the end zone from four yards out. Florida went for two and failed, leaving the score at 12-7. But the Florida Gators simply kept scoring.
Two plays later, Florida’s Desmond Watson leveled Joe Milton as he let the ball go. The ball floated high in the air like a popup for Devin Moore, who caught it like a punt at his own 40 and returned it 40 yards into the Tennessee red zone. Three plays later, Mertz plowed in for the touchdown, and when Trey Smack stepped in to kick the extra point- likely signaling a permanent move there- the score became 19-7.
The Gators’ onslaught continued following the defense forcing a three and out. After driving into the red zone, Mertz tossed a screen pass to Johnson, who made a man miss and navigated his way through the red zone for an 18 yard touchdown reception. That made the score 26-7 at halftime.
There was the slightest bit of discomfort among Gator fans as Florida opted to sit on the ball and run the second half clock out rather than go for the throat. But Florida’s defense, other than freshman Ja’Keem Jackson getting beat on one deep ball (which ironically featured one of the best moments of the night, as his teammate and fellow freshman Jordan Castell came over to encourage him and picked his helmet up), shut the Vols down. When Trey Smack tacked on a fourth quarter field goal to make it 29-10, the game was effectively over, as Tennessee’s two point conversion following the deep ball to Bru McCoy failed and kept it a two-touchdown deficit at 29-16.
Then- and only then- did the Vols put up a fight.
In the final seconds of Florida’s take-a-knee-and-run-out-the-clock routine, Josh Heupel called a timeout before Florida’s fourth down snap. On the ensuing fourth down play, Tennessee’s Omari Thomas located a circling Graham Mertz, and belted him as he was already in the process of going down after circling for a few seconds to drain the clock. Naturally, that touched off a bench-clearing brawl.
The main event featured Florida’s Damieon George and Austin Barber confronting Thomas and backing him down, which seemed to cool him off. But that was when Hadden sprinted into the mix, unsolicited, and grabbed the collar of Barber’s jersey. That drew Florida’s Micah Mazzccua into the mix, and triggered an undercard battle as Mazzccua chased Hadden down and the two squared off, with Mazzccua landing a blow that sent Hadden reeling backwards before the two could be separated.
By this point, dozens of players from both sides had entered themselves into the fracas, and fists started flying. Tennessee’s Omarr Norman-Losh was caught on camera throwing multiple punches before George put him down. A variety of fists from blue-clad Florida Gators players fired back in return. The melee took a full three minutes to be quelled, as flags flew and coaches and policemen teamed up with the officials to restore order and cool the tension.
Eventually, the players were separated, as Florida players began Gator chomping and waving goodbye to the Tennessee players as they trudged off the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium turf, losers once more in an annual showdown that’s becoming less of a showdown and more of a rite of passage.