KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Florida is quickly developing a reputation as the Southeastern Conference’s comeback kings.
Jeff Driskel threw two touchdown passes and Trey Burton ran for a pair of scores as No. 18 Florida scored the game’s final 24 points to beat No. 23 Tennessee 37-20 on Saturday night.
The Gators have won eight straight against their SEC East rivals, and for the second straight week came from behind on the road to win a conference game.
The Gators (3-0, 2-0) rallied from a 17-10 halftime deficit to win 20-17 at Texas A&M last week. Florida lost all five games it trailed at halftime last season.
Gators coach Will Muschamp said there’s a “night-and-day” difference in the toughness of this year’s Florida team.
“I’m really proud of our effort, coming on the road two weeks in a row,” Muschamp said. “We were really poised at halftime again, no bickering (or) finger-pointing, just doing what we needed to do to get this thing going.”
Mike Gillislee ran for 115 yards to lead a 336-yard rushing effort for the Gators, who have outrushed Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) in each of their eight consecutive victories over the Vols. Burton added 91 rushing yards on only three carries. Driskel ran for 81 yards on eight attempts, and he also went 14-of-20 for 219 yards passing.
Driskel’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Reed broke a 20-20 tie and put the Gators ahead for good with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Burton had tied the game less than three minutes earlier with an 80-yard touchdown run. Florida then proceeded to outgain Tennessee 152-5 in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve put a tremendous emphasis on winning the fourth quarter, winning the second half and wearing down our opponent,” Muschamp said. “That’s something we’ve been able to do in the first three ballgames. That’s something our kids have bought into doing.”
This comeback was particularly noteworthy because Tennessee hadn’t lost a game it led at halftime since Derek Dooley took over as the Vols’ coach in 2010. Through the first 27 games of Dooley’s tenure, the Vols had been 13-0 when leading at halftime and 0-14 when tied or behind at the midway point.
Tennessee’s Tyler Bray went 22-of-44 for 257 yards and threw touchdown passes to Cordarrelle Patterson and Mychal Rivera, but he also tossed his first two interceptions of the season. Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson added a 1-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation.
“We had a great game going and we just let it slip away,” Dooley said. “You know, the sky’s not going to fall tomorrow. We’re going to have to learn from it. They’re a good football team and we lost. We’ve got to make sure we don’t make those kinds of mistakes again because we’re going to be in a lot of fourth-quarter games. We’ve got to execute in the fourth.”
Florida’s rally stunned a Neyland Stadium sellout crowd of 102,455 that wanted to see Tennessee end its recent futility in this series and make a statement that it had reclaimed its status as an SEC contender after back-to-back losing seasons.
For about 2 ½ quarters, it seemed they’d get their wish.
The Vols led 20-13 and had a chance to take a double-digit advantage midway through the third quarter after an unsuccessful Florida fake punt attempt gave the Vols possession at the Gators’ 47-yard line. Tennessee failed to capitalize on the exceptional field position and ended up punting into the end zone.
Florida dominated from that point on.
Burton, a fullback who often takes snaps out of the Wildcat formation, raced 80 yards on the first play of Florida’s ensuing possession. Burton headed toward the right sideline, shook loose of Tennessee cornerback Marsalis Teague after crossing midfield and sailed into the end zone from there. That play was only Burton’s second carry of the night, as he’d run around left end for a 14-yard touchdown on his first attempt.
Florida got the ball back when Matt Elam picked off a Tyler Bray pass intended for Justin Hunter at the Florida 30. Driskel then put the Gators in front for good with his pass to Reed. The tiebreaking touchdown was set up by a 45-yard run from Gillislee, who had gained just 27 yards on 11 carries up to that point.
The Vols never recovered. A Tennessee offense that had moved the ball well for the first 40 minutes could do nothing right the rest of the evening. Tennessee was held to minus-8 yards on its last three possessions, and Bray ended his night with seven straight incompletions.
“We just had to frustrate him a little bit, make him hurry up a little more than he wanted to,” Florida linebacker Lerentee McCray said.
While Tennessee’s quick-strike attack fell apart, a Florida offense that had taken a grind-it-out approach for the first two weeks of the season started delivering big play after big play.
Driskel and Frankie Hammond connected on a 75-yard touchdown that extended Florida’s lead to 34-20 with 9:55 left in the game. Caleb Sturgis’ third field goal of the game – a 49-yarder – closed the scoring with 6:44 remaining.
“We have athletes all over the field, and we know if we keep getting them the ball, keep giving them touches, eventually (the defense) is going to break,” Driskel said. “Fortunately for us, we hit a couple of big plays that changed the momentum.”
And the Vols could never get it back.
Florida came from behind in the second half to win an SEC road game for the second consecutive week. The Gators had won 20-17 at Texas A&M last week after trailing 17-10 at halftime. Florida had lost all five times it had trailed at halftime last season.
This also marked the first time Tennessee had lost a game it led at halftime since Derek Dooley took over as the Vols’ coach in 2010. Through the first 27 games of Dooley’s tenure, the Vols had been 13-0 when leading at halftime and 0-14 when tied or behind at the midway point.