“In the Swamp, only Gators get out alive.”
Florida’s football team lived up to its mantra Saturday night. In their primetime matchup against the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers, the Gators pulled off a stunning 29-16 upset victory. Florida extended its 20-year winning streak against Tennessee in matchups played at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
After a closely contested first quarter, the Gators scored 20 unanswered points in the second quarter to pull ahead for good. Florida also dominated the time-of-possession battle in the first half. UF held onto the ball for 21:42 in to Tennessee’s 8:18. The Volunteers attempted to rally in the second half, but UF’s defense was up to the task.
Florida benefitted from a pair of dominant performances by quarterback Graham Mertz and running back Trevor Etienne. Mertz went 19-for-24 passing for 166 yards and a touchdown. He also chipped in with a touchdown on the ground in the second quarter.
Etienne ran for 172 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. His longest run of the night came on a 62-yard TD in the first quarter. Ricky Pearsall headed the Gators’ receiving corps with six catches for 43 yards.
For the Volunteers, quarterback Joe Milton went 20-for-34 with 287 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Jaylen Wright led the Tennessee backfield with 63 yards on 16 carries.
A Back-and-Forth Opening Quarter
Florida’s offense got off to a promising start on the evening. Graham Mertz connected with Eugene Wilson III on his first five completions for 45 yards, with the Gators driving all the way down to the 23-yard line.
However, Tennessee responded by forcing back-to-back plays for loss, forcing UF to settle for a 46-yard field goal attempt. Adam Mihalek’s kick fell a few yards short of the uprights, leaving the score at 0-0.
Tennessee’s offense then picked up right where the defense left off. On the fifth play of the drive, Joe Milton connected with Squirrel White on a 41-yard bomb to put the Volunteers in the red zone. One play later, Milton found Ramel Keyton in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown to take a 7-0 lead.
Etienne responded by storming across the field to put Florida on the board with a touchdown of his own. He weaved through Tennessee’s defense with ease to take it to the house on a 62-yard run. The Volunteers managed to block the extra point and hold on to a 7-6 lead. But Etienne’s powerful run had fired up the Swamp crowd.
62 YARDS TO THE HOUSE!!! pic.twitter.com/XbTDv4NYQO
— Florida Gators Football (@GatorsFB) September 16, 2023
Etienne entered Saturday night’s matchup prepared for a physical game, and he was ready to barrel over anyone in his way. On his monumental touchdown run, he only had one goal in sight: the orange and blue end zone.
Gators Take Over Late In The First Half
After Tennessee went three-and-out on their subsequent drive, the Gators took their first game of the lead midway through the second quarter. Mertz continued slicing his way through Tennessee’s defense throughout the drive, including on a perfectly placed 18-yard pass to Kahleil Jackson to stave off a 3rd-and-12. Eventually, Montrell Johnson Jr. twisted and turned his way through the Volunteers’ defense for a four-yard rushing touchdown.
— Rafael De Los Santos (@rafdelossantos) September 16, 2023
Mertz finished the game with a 79.2% completion rate, putting him at a 73.8% rate on the season. He credits his success with his accuracy this year to trusting his process in preparing for gamedays.
“All week, it’s just investing in making the right decisions in everything I do,” Mertz said. “It’s so cliche, but when you stack small wins, it makes some of my game pretty easy. I know if I’m setting myself up for success, I owe it every single day to this program and these players. I owe them everything I’ve got, and that’s what I’m going to give them every single day.
While the Gators’ two-point conversion attempt failed following Johnson’s touchdown, the score now sat at 12-7. Florida had secured their first lead of the day.
Not to be outdone, UF’s defense joined in on the fun on their next drive. After the defensive line pressured Milton into a bad throw, Devin Moore secured his first career interception and ran it back to the Tennessee nine-yard line. Mertz found his way into the end zone on a third down QB sneak to extend the Florida lead to 19-7.
By this point, the Swamp was as loud as ever, and the Gators were fully fired up. After another three-and-out from Tennessee, Graham Mertz narrowly avoided a sack to dump the ball off to Johnson Jr., who took the pass in for an 18-yard touchdown. Florida had now extended their lead to 26-7.
— Ellie Shreve (@ellie_shreve) September 17, 2023
Florida Keeps Tennessee At Bay In The Second Half
Tennessee’s offense began to show signs of life following the halftime break. On their opening drive of the second half, they cut the deficit to 26-10 on a 42-yard field goal. The Volunteers then made it all the way down to the Florida 19-yard line on their next drive, but the Gators forced a turnover on downs on a massive hit from Scooby Williams.
Following a quick three-and-out from Florida, Tennessee received the ball at their own 38-yard line. The Volunteers managed to pick up a pair of first downs, but a costly illegal blocking penalty backed them up into a 2nd-and-27. Eventually, the Gators forced another turnover on downs to wrap up the third quarter with minimal damage.
Florida capitalized on their optimal field position (and a costly roughing the passer penalty against Tennessee) to land in the red zone once again. Trey Smack sent a 27-yard field goal right down the middle of the uprights to take a 29-10 lead.
#Gators take a 29-10 lead after this first down run by Trevor Etienne.
Trey Smack has taken over as the place kicker.
— Zach Abolverdi (@ZachAbolverdi) September 17, 2023
With less than 10 minutes to go, reality began to set in across the Swamp. The marching band grew louder and louder as the 90,721 fans in attendance watched in glee (or for the Volunteers fans in attendance, in horror) as the Gators grew closer to pulling off the upset.
Gators Go On Cruise Control For The Win
The Volunteers managed to tack on a late-game touchdown on a 55-yard long ball from Milton to Bru McCoy. Nevertheless, Florida’s defense fended off Tennessee’s two-point conversion attempt, with Princely Umanmielen knocking Milton out of bounds to keep the score at 29-16.
The Gators went into full clock-management mode upon getting the ball back. After drawing an offsides penalty from Tennessee on a 4th-and-1, Florida managed to burn four minutes off the clock before punting the ball back to the Volunteers. At this point, any remaining hopes of a Tennessee comeback had vanished.
— Cam Parker (@camparker25) September 17, 2023
The Volunteers drove all the way down to the Florida 25-yard line in their final play of the game. Alas, four consecutive incompletions from Milton served as the final nail in the coffin for Tennessee’s first loss of the year. Florida had officially stunned the college football world and defeated the #11 Volunteers.
As he prepared to address the media after the game, Billy Napier immediately made it clear who he wanted to thank for this victory: the fans. Napier, Mertz and Etienne all noted how the energy level in the Swamp played an integral role in Florida’s commanding performance.
Following their win on Saturday night, Florida moves to 2-1 on the season. The Gators will look to keep their momentum rolling next week against the Charlotte 49ers. The two squads will face off at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Sept. 23, with kickoff set for 7 p.m. EDT.