All eyes were on Knoxville on Saturday.
It was clear that Tennessee was making progress under head coach Josh Heupel. But to finally make a statement, it needed to put nearly two decades of agony behind it and beat rival Florida.
The Volunteers embraced every moment and didn’t let the big stage get to them as it had in the past. Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman was out for this game which was a huge loss. Even without Tillman, the Tennessee offense proved to be one of, if not the best, offense in the country in a 38-33 win.
With quarterbacks being the focal point, Florida’s Anthony Richardson played his best game of the season. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker was even better.
A Well-Oiled Orange Machine
Hooker and the Tennessee offense couldn’t be stopped all day. The Vols did have two turnovers, but Tennessee didn’t punt the ball one time on Saturday. Hooker was banged up in the second quarter, but that didn’t stop him from throwing for 349 yards and two touchdowns.
Florida’s defense has struggled stopping the quarterback run this season. On Saturday, Hooker ran for 112 yards and a touchdown against the Gators defense.
In bar far his best passing effort of the season, Richardson did all he could do. In the end, it wasn’t enough to beat Tennessee.
Back and Forth
The game itself started off with both offenses moving the ball with ease, but points didn’t come right away. The Vols’ offense couldn’t be stopped, but a turnover in the red zone and costly penalties left Tennessee with just three points over its two possessions.
The Vols had a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, but the Gators scored early in the second quarter to go up 7-3. Richardson finally threw a touchdown pass and Florida had some early confidence.
After a exchange of touchdowns and a Florida punt, Hooker led the Vols on a 13-play, 99-yard touchdown drive to take a 17-14 lead into the half. Tennessee again scored on the opening possession of the second half. Following another touchdown exchange, Florida fumbled in the red zone and Tennessee scored again to take its largest lead of the day, 38-21.
Gators Make it Interesting
If there’s anything to take away for Florida, it’s that it didn’t give up. Down 17 points with five minutes left, the Gators stormed back and scored on back-to-back drives to make it 38-33.
Florida needed a miracle and the football gods answered its prayer. The Gators recovered an onside kick and had a chance to win the game.
Still, a gassed Tennessee defense needed just one stop to preserve victory. Richardson’s desperation heave was intercepted on the final play as the Volunteers beat the Gators for the first time since 2016.
The Gators have some things to clean up, but should be just fine. Florida is now 2-2 on the season and 0-2 in SEC play.
Expect Richardson and the Florida offense to play much better moving forward. Florida’s defense will also be fine. Florida should win its next couple games and get back on track heading into the toughest stretch of the schedule.
Tennessee has a much-needed bye in Week 5. After the bye, the Vols have a tough stretch with consecutive contests against LSU and Alabama. Tennessee needs to rest up and get healthy before the back half of the season.
The Volunteers are now 4-0 and undefeated heading into October. Heupel doesn’t get enough credit for what he has done with this Tennessee program. Following just its second win over Florida in 18 tries, Tennessee is now No. 8 in the AP Poll.
With the college football world’s attention on Knoxville, the Vols took a step forward as a program. Neyland Stadium was absolutely deafening all day.
By getting over the Florida hump, Tennessee is in a position to battle for the SEC East. It will be fun to watch how the remainder of the season plays out for both teams.
Featured image courtesy of Tennessee athletics