GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida and Tennessee played for the final time as Southeastern Conference Eastern Division rivals Saturday night in the Swamp.
The result was way too familiar for the Volunteers.
Entering a frenzied Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with a No. 11 ranking and as a rare favorite, Tennessee was often its own worst enemy during a 29-16 loss to the Gators before a crowd of 90,751 in the league opener for both teams.
The Vols (2-1) had never lost 10 consecutive times in an opposing venue before Saturday, but Florida (2-1) made sure of it behind Trevor Etienne’s career-best 172 rushing yards and an efficient performance at quarterback by Graham Mertz.
“At the end of the day, nobody was doing what they needed to at the level that they need to,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “That was in the run game, the protection and in the quarterback play and the wide receiver play. It starts with me and our coaching staff, too.
“It was extremely disappointing after the defense had the one stop and the offense had the one drive.”
The SEC is doing away with divisions before next season’s arrivals of Oklahoma and Texas to form a 16-member conference. The Vols are scheduled to host Florida in 2024, but they wound up just 7-25 against the Gators in the divisional era that was implemented in 1992.
Saturday’s game ended in a skirmish after Tennessee called a timeout with nine seconds remaining, which led to Mertz trying to run out the clock and getting hit by Vols nose tackle Omari Thomas, who was flagged for targeting.
“We’re trying to get the ball back with a shot at the end zone,” Heupel said. “I don’t know if we’re going to have enough time for an onside (kick) and get another shot, but you’re trying to finish and compete the right way. He’s dancing around. Do you want the targeting? Obviously not. The guy is dancing around, so you’ve got to tackle the guy.
“Do we want to be composed in that situation and in all situations? Absolutely.”
Joe Milton III entered Saturday night having not thrown an interception during his three seasons with the Vols, but that came to an end midway through the second quarter, and in quite the costly way. Milton was hit as he threw by 6-foot-5, 435-pound Gators nose tackle Desmond Watson, which resulted in cornerback Devin Moore fielding the floating miscue like a center fielder and racing 39 yards to set Florida up for what would be a three-play, 9-yard touchdown drive for a 19-7 lead.
Mertz put the Gators up by a dozen with a 1-yard sneak, and after three Tennessee plays netted minus-5 yards, Mertz capped a seven-play, 55-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Montrell Johnson for a stunning 26-7 lead with 2:22 remaining before halftime.
The Gators entered Saturday night only 6-of-19 on third-down opportunities, but they converted six of their first seven in taking a 12-7 lead.
“Give credit to Florida, because they did a good job,” Heupel said, “but we’ve got to be a lot cleaner.”
Tennessee pulled within 26-10 and advanced to Florida’s 17-yard line midway through the third quarter after a 43-yard strike from Milton to Dont’e Thornton, but Jaylen Wright was stuffed for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1. The Vols averaged 257.5 rushing yards per game through wins over Virginia and Austin Peay but were held to 106 against the Gators.
Milton finished 20-of-34 passing for a career-high 287 yards and two touchdowns, including a 55-yard scoring strike to Bru McCoy that made it 29-16 with 8:41 remaining.
“He did some good things down the stretch,” Heupel said. “Early in the game, we as an entire unit weren’t playing the way that we needed to in order to move the football consistently.”
Florida took the game’s opening possession 46 yards on 14 plays and consumed 7:26, but the Gators came away empty when Adam Mihalek was short on a 46-yard field-goal attempt.
The Vols exploded out of the gate with a 41-yard pass from Milton to Squirrel White to Florida’s 11-yard line on their first possession. On the ensuing play, Milton connected with Ramel Keyton for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead to cap a six-play drive that required just 2:01.
Tennessee’s touchdown lead was very brief, as Florida answered with a 62-yard touchdown run by Etienne to make it a 7-6 game due to a blocked kick. Etienne raced across midfield and benefited from Vols cornerback Kamal Hadden failing to wrap him up in a poor tackle attempt, thus freeing a path to the end zone.
Etienne would rush for 119 yards in the first half, nearly equaling Tennessee’s 122-yard total.
“These were all self-inflicted wounds,” Milton said. “People will say, ‘Oh, we lost to Florida,’ but when you see all the problems we caused for ourself — those are things we can change.”
The Vols, who committed 10 penalties for 79 yards on the evening, return to Neyland Stadium next Saturday for an afternoon contest against the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].