The Florida Gators made a statement to the college football world on Saturday evening in their SEC opener. On an afternoon where the basketball team was honored for winning back-to-back national championships, the football team showed they might have enough to make their own run at consecutive titles after crushing Tennessee 59-20 in front of 90,707 in The Swamp.
Without senior Andre Caldwell on the field, the Gators gained a whopping 554 total offensive yards. And the Gator defense completely shut down the Vols ground game, holding Tennessee to 37 yards rushing.
Florida beat Tennessee in every phase of the game, outgaining them by 256 yards. The defense forced three turnovers, and behind the speedy Brandon James, Florida averaged 25 yards per return, including an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown by James just two minutes into the game.
The Florida defense held Tennessee to a paltry 5-of-17 on third down conversions and picked off Vols quarterback Erik Ainge twice for his only interceptions of the season.
“I couldn’t help but look up and think I’m a fortunate guy to be coaching at Florida,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “My goodness, for those young guys to hold those talented players to only 30 yards rushing, my hats off to them.”
The defense got things rolling quickly, stopping Tennessee on its very first possession and forcing them to punt from their own 33-yard line. But once Britton Colquitt’s punt got up in the air, it was off to the races for James. It was James’ second punt returned for a touchdown in his career.
"We saw something on film," Meyer said. "It's amazing the kind of energy we get in practice when those cats know they've got Brandon James behind them.I enjoy coaching those guys. That's a good group of people."
If it weren’t for the punt return, the Gators may have fallen behind the Vols because they struggled on their first two offensive drives. Meanwhile, Tennessee answered Florida’s touchdown with a field goal with 1:45 left in the first quarter, following an eight play, 38-yard drive. Ainge was 3-of-4 for 30 yards, setting up Ocala’s Daniel Lincoln’s 27-yard kick.
"We played horrible in the first quarter," Meyer said. "We didn't block and we couldn't get out of the short side of the field."
The Gator offense that was so prevalent against Troy in the first half last week arrived by the end of the first quarter. UF took just three plays and just over a minute to drive 65 yards to extend their lead. Tim Tebow hit his new favorite target Riley Cooper on a 30-yard pass play to give the Gators a 14-3 lead before the end of the opening quarter. It ended up being Cooper’s only catch of the game.
Tennessee would answer with a ball-control drive that lasted for 13 plays, covering 77 yards. Florida’s defense looked as if it was going to be tested, but the Gators stuffed Tennessee inside the 10, forcing the Vols to settle for a 22-yard field goal.
Florida answered with a long drive of its own behind the power running of Tebow. The sophomore quarterback carried four times, including a 7-yard run into the end zone, extending the Gator lead, 21-3, with 5:38 left in the first half. Tebow finished with 18 carries for 61 yards.
UF’s offense was now running on all cylinders, adding another score just before halftime when Tebow hit Cornelius Ingram on a 20-yard pass to the back left corner of the end zone. Ingram had three catches for 56 yards.
Tennessee exposed the Gator defense, however, at the end of the half when they put together a successful two-minute drill, covering 64 yards in just under a minute. The drive ended when Ainge hit wide receiver Chris Brown for a 15-yard touchdown. Florida took a 28-13 lead into the locker room.
The third quarter saw both teams score without the help of the offenses. Florida put together a good-looking drive to start the half, but Tebow was intercepted after Cooper ran the wrong route. Tennessee's true freshman Eric Berry returned the pick 96 yards, inching the Vols closer to the Gators, 28-20. It was Tebow’s first interception of the season.
"[Cooper] was supposed to come across the corners face, and it was a young player making a mistake," Meyer said. "The good thing is he's going to come back even harder next week."
The Gators were then forced to punt on their subsequent drive and momentum was clearly shifting towards the Vols. But following the punt, Vols tailback Arian Foster fumbled the handoff from Ainge, and Florida linebacker Dustin Doe picked it up and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. Florida went up 35-20 and never looked back.
"Those are gigantic plays," Meyer said. "They are game-changers."
The Gators added three more touchdowns and a 25-yard field goal by Joey Ijjas before it was all said and done.
Percy Harvin led the Gators offensively with 195 all-purpose yards – four receptions for 120 yards and nine carries for 75 yards. Tebow finished 14-of-19 for 299 yards and two touchdowns.
The Gators defeat Tennessee for the third straight time and remain undefeated at The Swamp and against its three rivals under Meyer. The Gators hit the road for the first time next week against Ole Miss.