Florida defeats No. 11 Tennessee 29-16 to give the Gators their 10th straight home win in the series

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Trevor Etienne ran for a career-high 172 yards and a touchdown, Montrell Johnson scored twice and Florida beat No. 11 Tennessee 29-16 on Saturday night, extending the Volunteers’ losing streak in Gainesville to 10.

The game ended with a scuffle and penalty kicks by both teams. Florida quarterback Graham Mertz fell to his knees and then fretted as Omari Thomas charged into him. The benches cleared and Tennessee’s Kamal Hadden and Florida’s Micah Mazzccua squared off like boxers. Mazzccua has clearly struck. Damieon George of Florida was initially charged with unsportsmanlike conduct and Thomas was charged with targeted assault. But neither flag was enforced.

Coaches Josh Heupel and Billy Napier shared an icy handshake in midfield before the teams returned to the field for one final play.

The win was the first in a rivalry for Napier, who last year became the first coach in school history to lose to Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State in the same season. Scoring first should quell the outside noise about Napier’s long-term viability with the Gators (2-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference).

For the volunteers, the 550-mile journey from Knoxville ended like all others in the past two decades: with heartache. Tennessee last won in the Swamp in 2003. The crisis began with Phillip Fulmer and has spanned the coaching seasons of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt and now Heupel at Tennessee.

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Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) seemed to have as good a chance as anyone to end its road drought in the series – the Vols were 6 1/2-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook – but quarterback Joe Milton and His offensive line seemed lost at times just trying to get plays going.

The Vols were accused of five false starts and had to call two timeouts early in the second half to avoid delay-of-game penalties. The crowd noise may have even affected the referees, who apparently made a mistake by allowing Florida to sub before Tennessee’s four-and-one play in the third quarter.

Scooby Williams stuffed Jaylen Wright into the backfield to cause a turnover on downs. The Vols failed again on fourth down on their next drive, with Milton ending that drive with an incomplete throw.

Graham Mertz and Florida felt much more comfortable in front of 90,751 spectators, the 12th largest crowd at Florida Field.

Mertz completed 19 of 24 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. He was also chasing points. Etienne broke off a 62-yard TD run in the first quarter. Johnson had a short scoring run and an 18-yard TD reception that made it 26-7 in the second half.

A crucial mistake later on was another penalty by Tennessee. With a 29-16 lead, Florida looked to clinch the win on fourth-and-1 at its own 34 line. But Kurott Garland went offside, giving the Gators a first down.

Two things went wrong for Florida: Freshman receiver Tre Wilson, who caught Mertz’s first six passes, injured his collarbone and was slung on the sideline in the second half, and kicker Adam Mihalek failed early on a 46-yarder -Field goal had an extra point blocked.

Napier benched Mihalek in favor of Trey Smack, who hit both extra points and hit a 26-yard field goal to give Florida a small cushion.

Tennessee: The Volunteers outscored Florida 393-349 yards, but Milton threw an interception in the first half and never found a rhythm. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 287 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. He also recovered his own fumble.

Florida: The Gators recovered well from an error-filled opening game against the then No. 1 team. 14Utah. They manhandled McNeese last week and beat Tennessee to give themselves a chance in the East Division.

The Volunteers are sure to be included in the next Associated Press Top 25 college football poll, which will be released Sunday.

Tennessee: Hosts the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) next Saturday.

Florida: Charlotte hosts next Saturday.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Brian Ashcraft

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