There was no rousing second half comeback this time, no duck pulling truck jokes, or for that matter, no form of joy for the home team in the 48th installment of the Florida-Tennessee rivalry. Instead, in their first return to the scene of the crime where their last streak over Tennessee ended, the Gators went to work starting a new one.
With some authority.
Florida forced six turnovers, including one inside the one yard line and three others that they exchanged directly for touchdowns, in a 47-21 stomping of the Vols. The Gators have now won two straight, thirteen out of the last fourteen, 21 out of the last 26 and 26 of the last 33 games over Tennessee. More importantly, Dan Mullen’s team appears to have righted what seemed to be a sinking ship after a loss to Kentucky two weeks ago.
Tennessee certainly helped. New head coach Jeremy Pruitt was looking to make a statement with a big win in his SEC debut. Instead, his Vols turned into a charity organization.
The Vols began giving out goodies right away. Jarrett Guarantano was mauled by Jachai Polite on Tennessee’s first drive, causing the ball to pop out and fall into the hands of David Reese. Moments later, Feleipe Franks tossed an easy touchdown to RJ Raymond for a 7-0 lead.
Fans who may have arrived to the stadium or to their watch parties late got a rare opportunity to watch a real life instant replay barely a minute later. With pressure in his face, Guarantano lofted the ball right into the hands of Florida defensive lineman Luke Ancrum. Franks made Tennessee pay for that by plowing into the end zone from a yard out and in the blink of an eye, it was 14-0.
Tennessee managed to fight back with a field goal, but Pruitt then got cute and ordered an onside kick. It failed, with LaMical Perine fighting off a sea of Vols for the football to recover the ball for Florida. Though the Gators would go nowhere, Tommy Townsend subsequently teardropped a punt down to the Tennessee two; two plays later, Cece Jefferson blew up running back Tim Jordan in the end zone for a safety and an increase in the lead to 16-3.
It only got worse from there, too. Franks found Freddie Swain on the sideline for an easy first down, but Swain then turned on the jets, wheeled around a defender and turned a first down into a 65 yard touchdown that made the score 23-3. Tennessee appeared to respond nicely with a 55 yard scoring strike to Austin Pope, but CJ Henderson chased him down and administered a flying helmet first tackle that dislodged the ball, which rolled harmlessly through the end zone for a touchback and Tennessee came up empty. An Evan McPherson field goal just before the half made it 26-3.
In contrast to the Gators’ famous collapse two years ago, in which they blew a 21-0 lead over the Vols in Neyland Stadium following Quincy Wilson’s famous duck pulling a truck metaphor, Florida didn’t surrender this time. Brad Stewart put an end to that idea on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, ripping the ball away from return man Shawn Shamburger, and Brian Edwards recovered. On the very next play, Jordan Scarlett sauntered into the end zone from 19 yards out to adjust the score to 33-3, which sent the Vol fans streaming for the exits.
Tennessee would pick up a field goal and a pair of touchdowns after that point against a Gator defense that quite frankly couldn’t have cared less, going for two and getting it. But Franks dished out a miserable dose of deja vu in the middle of the Vols’ efforts to make the score closer by finding Tyrie Cleveland for a 38 yard touchdown to drive the dagger through the Vols’ hearts. The play was somewhat reminiscent of the walk-off win over the Vols in 2017, when Franks hit Cleveland for the 63 yard game winning touchdown a year ago in Gainesville as time expired.
Florida, of course, needed no such heroics this year. But the Gators did again get the last bullet in the scoring column. Just as Tennessee managed to eclipse half of the Gators’ point total with the two point conversion to draw within 40-21, Dameon Pierce refused to even allow the Vols that minuscule amount of satisfaction, ripping off a 47 yard touchdown run with five minutes to go to bring the scoring to a close.
This Florida team still has issues, and will have to play better than it did tonight in order to beat Mississippi State next week in Starkville. Tennessee gave Florida a lot of what the Gators finished with stats-wise. But the Gators made plays on both sides of the ball, too, and deserve credit for that. Tennessee gave the ball away six times, but the other side of that coin is that Florida took it away six times. Both statements are true, and Florida deserves some credit for that.
And whatever happens to Florida this year, at least the Gators are in better shape than the Vols- and unquestionably headed upwards.