The No. 16/17 University of Florida football team claimed its SEC opener for the seventh consecutive year, as the Gators defeated Tennessee 33-23 before a crowd of 90,744 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. With the victory the Gators have also started the season 3-0 for the seventh consecutive year.
Florida broke open what was a close game at the half, getting two scores early in the third quarter, a 1-yard run by Trey Burton and an 83-yard highlight reel touchdown reception from Chris Rainey to grab a 30-7 lead. Burton opened the scoring with a 1-yard touchdown reception earlier in the game and Caleb Sturgis has hit four field goals to improve to 9-for-9 on the year.
Rainey finished a spectacular night with the first 100/100 game of his career – 100 yards rushing and receiving. He finished with 21 carries for 108 yard and two receptions for 104 while also blocking a punt.
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, the SEC Player of the Week, threw three touchdown passes, connecting for one each with Marlin Lane, Da’Rick Rogers and Mychal Rivera, while also getting a field goal from Michael Palardy.
The Gators defeated the Volunteers for the seventh straight time and for the fourth straight time at the Swamp. The teams opened SEC play against each other for the 10th straight year with the Gators sporting an 8-2 mark in that stretch.
Florida wasted little time jumping out in front, marching 80 yards on nine plays in just over four minutes. The Gators came out slinging, running no-huddle offense and seizing the early tempo as John Brantley completed four straight passes before the Gators finally went to the ground. Jeff Demps took a hand off and raced 28 yards to the Tennessee 1-yard line before Brantley connected with Burton for the touchdown and early lead.
Brantley went 5-for-5 passing for 52 yards and the touchdown pass on the opening drive.
Tennessee was able to move the ball on its first drive, putting together a nine-play drive all the way down to the Florida 20. Michael Palardy pushed a 37-yard attempt wide right and the Vols came up empty-handed.
After the missed field goal the Gators once again moved the ball efficiently on offense. Keyed by a 28-yard completion from Brantley to Demps on 3rd down, the Gators moved all the way to the Vols’ 11-yard line before the drive eventually stalled. Sturgis was true on a 28-yard attempt to give the Gators a 10-0 lead with 1:10 left in the first quarter.
As the teams moved to the second quarter, the Gators forced another Tennessee punt. Sending 10 players to the line, the Gators set up for the block and got it when Chris Rainey came up the middle for his fifth career block, a new school record.
Unable to punch the ball in, the Gators settled for a 30-yard field goal from Sturgis to grab a 13-0 lead with 11:57 left in the half.
The Gator defense continued to stymie Tennessee, forcing the Vols to punt from inside their 10-yard line on their next drive. Rainey was on the receiving end of a punt this time and raced to the Tennessee 34-yard line to set up the Gators’ next score, a 46-yard field goal from Sturgis for a 16-0 lead with 8:31 left in the half.
Tennessee finally established its offense late in the first half, marching 89 yards on just six plays with the benefit of two pass interference calls. Bray hit a wide open Lane for an 8-yard touchdown with just under two minutes left in the half to get the Vols on the board, cutting the lead to 16-7.
After coming out and establishing the offense early, the Gators struggled in the closing stages of the half. The Gators mustered 167 yards of offense in the opening half, 118 in the air and 49 on the ground. Brantley finished the half 12-of-17 for 118 yards and a touchdown.
The Gator offense shut down the Vols for most of the first half before Bray got hot late. The Vols got 70 of their 134 total yards in the final four minutes of the half. Bray was also 12-of-17 passing for 131 yards and a touchdown, while the Gators have held the Vols to just 3 yards rushing.
Tennessee received the kick to start the second half but Florida made the first impact play when Josh Evans picked off Bray to set the Gators up at the Vols’ 42-yard line. A 13-yard run by Rainey and a late hit out-of-bounds on the Vols set the Gators up at the 15-yard line and then Brantley hit Burton with a 12-yard pick-up to the Tennessee 3-yard line to set up Burton’s second touchdown of the game.
After a Omarius Hines nearly hauled in a tipped pass that would have been touchdown on third and goal, the Gators went for it and Burton bulled his way into the end zone on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line for a 23-7 lead.
After the Gators forced another Tennessee punt Rainey took a short dump pass by Brantley and did the rest himself, going 83 yards for the longest touchdown reception of his career, giving Florida a commanding 30-7 lead mid-way through the third quarter.
Tennessee grabbed a measure of momentum late in the third quarter when the Vols recovered a fumble by Demps setting them up at the Gators’ 17-yard line. Bray hit Rogers for a 14-yard score to cut the margin to 30-13. The Vols could have cut it to a two-possession game with an extra point but opted to go for two and the Gators broke up the conversion.
As the game moved to the fourth quarter the Vols embarked on a drive that seemed to swing momentum both ways. Marcus Roberson appeared to pick off a Bray pass and stall a Tennessee drive on third down. A pass interference on Roberson negated the interception, however, and the Vols marched to the Gators’ 3-yard line before Palardy kicked a 20-yard field goal to cut Florida’s lead to 30-16.
At a much-needed time, the Gators followed Palardy’s field goal and went on a time-consuming drive. The Gators took over six minutes of the clock, running 12 plays and getting a 42-yard field goal from Sturgis to increase the lead to 33-16. It marked the first four-field goal day in Sturgis’ career.
The Vols wouldn’t go away, as Bray connected with Rivera for his third touchdown pass of the day cutting the lead to 33-23 with 4:46 to go. Tennessee got the ball back late but Matt Elam ended any thoughts of a comeback with an interception of Bray to ice the game.
The Gators finished with 347 yards of offense, 213 through the air, and 134 on the ground. Brantley finished 14-of-23 passing for 213 yards and two touchdowns. The Vols did all of their damage through the air, as Bray finished 26-of-48 passing for 288 yards. Florida held Tennessee to -9 yards rushing on the night.
After three straight home games the Gators now take to the road for the first time this year, and head to Lexington next Saturday for a showdown with Kentucky. The game is set for a 7 p.m. kick-off and will be broadcast by either ESPN or ESPN2.