KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee and its big-play offense got beaten at its own game.
The 23rd-ranked Volunteers had won their first two games of the season by relying on a high-powered passing attack that could score from anywhere on the field, but they couldn’t accomplish anything down the stretch Saturday in a 37-20 loss to No. 18 Florida at Neyland Stadium.
Instead, it was Florida’s grind-it-out offense creating all the big plays while scoring the game’s final 24 points.
“We had a great game going and we just let it slip away,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “You know, the sky’s not going to fall tomorrow. We’re going to have to learn from it. They’re a good football team and we lost. We’ve got to make sure we don’t make those kinds of mistakes again because we’re going to be in a lot of fourth-quarter games. We’ve got to execute in the fourth.”
Florida tied the game 20-20 on Trey Burton’s 80-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation — his second score of the night — with 3:15 left in the third quarter. Mike Gillislee’s 45-yard run on Florida’s next series set up a 23-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Driskel to Jordan Reed that put the Gators up for good with 30 seconds left in the third. Driskel then put the game away with a 75-yard touchdown pass to Frankie Hammond as Florida outgained Tennessee 152-5 in the fourth quarter.
“They started going up and started gashing us,” Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers said. “Our guys started hanging their heads.”
This marked the second straight come-from-behind road victory over an SEC opponent for Florida, which had lost all five games it had trailed at halftime last season. The Gators (3-0, 2-0 SEC) rallied from a 17-10 halftime deficit to win 20-17 at Texas A&M last week.
“I’m really proud of our effort, coming on the road two weeks in a row,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “We were really poised at halftime again, no bickering (or) finger-pointing, just doing what we needed to do to get this thing going.”
Gillislee ran for 115 yards to lead a 336-yard rushing effort for the Gators, who have outrushed Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) in each of their eight consecutive victories over the Vols. Burton added 91 rushing yards on only three carries. Driskel ran for 81 yards on eight attempts, and he also went 14-of-20 for 219 yards passing.
“We’ve put a tremendous emphasis on winning the fourth quarter, winning the second half and wearing down our opponent,” Muschamp said. “That’s something we’ve been able to do in the first three ballgames. That’s something our kids have bought into doing.”
This comeback was particularly noteworthy because Tennessee hadn’t lost a game it led at halftime since Derek Dooley took over as the Vols’ coach in 2010. Through the first 27 games of Dooley’s tenure, the Vols had been 13-0 when leading at halftime and 0-14 when tied or behind at the midway point.
Tennessee’s Tyler Bray went 22-of-44 for 257 yards and threw touchdown passes to Cordarrelle Patterson and Mychal Rivera, but he also tossed his first two interceptions of the season. Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson added a 1-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation.
Dooley said his team was “shell-shocked” by Florida’s big plays that changed the game’s momentum.
“We hadn’t given up anything like that,” Dooley said. “Those are just enormous plays in a game.”
Tennessee entered the night intent on ending its recent futility in this series and making a statement that it had reclaimed its status as an SEC contender after back-to-back losing seasons.
For about 2 ½ quarters, the Vols seemed as though they’d get their wish.
The Vols led 20-13 and had a chance to take a double-digit advantage midway through the third quarter after an unsuccessful Florida fake punt attempt gave the Vols possession at the Gators’ 47-yard line. Tennessee failed to capitalize and ended up punting into the end zone.
Florida dominated from that point on.
Burton, a fullback who often takes snaps out of the Wildcat formation, raced 80 yards on the first play of Florida’s ensuing possession. Florida got the ball back when Matt Elam picked off a Tyler Bray pass intended for Justin Hunter at the Florida 30. Driskel then put the Gators in front for good with his pass to Reed.
The Vols never recovered. A Tennessee offense that had moved the ball well for the first 40 minutes could do nothing right the rest of the evening. Tennessee, which had produced four touchdown drives of 34 seconds or less in its first two games, was held to minus-8 yards on its last three possessions. Bray ended his night with seven straight incompletions.
“We just had to frustrate him a little bit, make him hurry up a little more than he wanted to,” Florida linebacker Lerentee McCray said.
Hammond’s big play extended Florida’s lead to 34-20 with 9:55 left in the game. Caleb Sturgis’ third field goal of the game – a 49-yarder – closed the scoring with 6:44 remaining.
“We have athletes all over the field, and we know if we keep getting them the ball, keep giving them touches, eventually (the defense) is going to break,” Driskel said. “Fortunately for us, we hit a couple of big plays that changed the momentum.”
And the Vols could never get it back.
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