KNOXVILLE, TN (AP) — Tennessee seemed on the verge of ending its recent history of frustration against Florida.
Then the Volunteers delivered an all-too-familiar late collapse.
Austin Hardin made a 49-yard field goal with 6:20 remaining Saturday as Florida (3-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) rallied behind backup quarterback Treon Harris to erase a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit in a 10-9 victory over Tennessee that continued the Gators’ decade-long mastery of this annual series. Tennessee hasn’t beaten Florida since 2004.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “We didn’t get it done. Case closed.”
The Vols (2-3, 0-2) were favored over the Gators for only the second time since this drought began, and the sense of Tennessee optimism was evident in the pregame fanfare. About 400 former players joined Tennessee’s current roster in running through the “T” before the game. The scoreboard flashed a videotaped pregame pep talk from rapper Lil Jon, who would exhort the crowd again in third-down situations as a remixed version of his song “Turn Down For What” played over the loudspeaker. Entire sections of the early-arriving Neyland Stadium sellout crowd wore either white or orange, giving the stands the same checkerboard effect as the end zones.
“Neyland was definitely rocking,” Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “The checkerboard, it looked great. It was a great environment, but we didn’t get the job done.”
The fourth-quarter fade was reminiscent of the last time Florida visited Tennessee. The Vols also were favored in that game and led in the second half before a late meltdown resulted in a 37-20 loss. Tennessee was undefeated the night of that game and ended up 5-7.
The Vols believe they’ll bounce back this time. They believe they’re equipped to bounce back from adversity.
“I think we’re more together as a team,” Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley said. “In years past, we might have really dwelled on this loss and not really ever gotten over it.”
Matt Jones rushed for 114 yards and had a 32-yard run to set up Hardin’s winning kick. Tennessee drove into Florida territory in the final minute before Keanu Neal sealed the victory by intercepting a Worley pass at the Florida 23 with 51 seconds left.
Aaron Medley kicked three field goals for Tennessee, which lost for the third straight time.
Worley was 26 of 39 for 205 yards, but he also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Bryan Cox Jr. had three of the Gators’ six sacks as a Florida defense that had yielded 645 yards in its last game — a 42-21 loss to No. 3 Alabama two weeks ago — kept Tennessee’s offense out of the end zone all day.
Florida has outrushed Tennessee in each of its 10 straight victories over the Vols, a trend that continued Saturday. Florida rushed for 156 yards while holding the Vols to 28 yards on 29 carries. Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd had a shoulder injury that limited him in the second half.
“I’m angered and I’m upset, but I’m not discouraged because I see the progress every day,” Butch Jones said. “You guys need to hang in there. We’re in it together. We’re going to get it together.”
Tennessee led 9-0 late in the third quarter Jalen Tabor started Florida’s comeback by sacking Worley, knocking the ball loose and recovering the fumble at Tennessee’s 30. After the Tabor takeaway, Harris replaced Jeff Driskel, who was 11 of 23 for 59 yards with three interceptions. Harris engineered a drive that ended in Matt Jones’ 2-yard touchdown run with 13:40 left.
Florida still trailed 9-7 when Jones delivered a 32-yard run that got the Gators into scoring position. The Gators faced fourth-and-3 from the Tennessee 32 when they turned to Hardin, who had attempted only one field goal all year. Hardin, the Gators’ designated kicker for longer field-goal attempts, had missed from 52 yards out against Kentucky on his only previous try.
Hardin’s 49-yarder in this instance split the uprights to put Florida ahead for good.
“It wasn’t always pretty,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “We did the things we had to, especially down nine on the road in the fourth quarter. You make a quarterback change, and our guys didn’t blink. They responded to it.”
Muschamp praised Harris’ composure in leading the comeback but wouldn’t indicate whether the freshman would start at quarterback next week against No. 15 LSU.
“We won’t make any decision on who’s going to start our next ballgame today,” Muschamp said. “It was a very emotional win. We’re going to go home, we’re going to watch the film, we’re going to see why we’re not offensively doing some things we feel like are there. It wasn’t all on Jeff.”
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