KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Behind their quarterback of the future, Jeff Driskel, and a quarterback from their past, do-everything junior Trey Burton, the Florida Gators staged another dramatic, second-half comeback on the road.
In the process, the No. 18 Gators (3-0, 2-0 SEC) gave head coach Will Muschamp a long-awaited signature win, a 37-20 victory Saturday night at Tennessee.
With the No. 23 Vols (2-1, 0-1) holding a touchdown lead and in control of the game, the Gators seized the momentum during an improbable third quarter filled with big plays on both sides of the ball.
Florida would close the game with 24 unanswered points in the game’s final 18 minutes.
It began with 80-yard touchdown run by Burton and 23-yard touchdown pass from Driskel to Jordan Reed in a two-minute span on successive drives. The plays gave Florida a lead – at 27-20 – it would not lose.
Sandwiched between the two big players, Gators linebacker Lerentee McCray hit the passing arm of Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray as he threw down field, and the ball wobbled its way into the waiting hands of Florida safety Matt Elam.
“We gave up some big plays and our offense disappeared,” Dooley said. “We never recovered.
“We were shellshocked a little bit.”
Driskel, on the other hand, looked like a veteran playmaker and leader in just his second college start at quarterback. He finished the game with 300 yards of total offense, including 81 rushing yards on eight carries. He was 14-of-20 passing for 219 yards and two touchdowns, including a 75-yard hook-up with Frankie Hammond Sr. with 9:55 remaining to essentially ice the game.
Burton, who lined up at quarterback for the 2010 Gators, had 91 yards rushing yards and two touchdowns on three carries. He also had a 32-yard catch to set up a third-quarter field goal that cut the early Tennnessee lead to 14-13.
Senior running back Mike Gillislee added 115 rushing yards as Florida racked up 336 yards on the ground, the most by the Gators against the Vols since 1977.
“That’s awesome knowing we can run the ball on any down,” Driskel said. “That really takes pressure off me.”
Meanwhile, the Gators defense, at the mercy of Bray and his big, talented receivers for more than two quarters, pulled the plug on the Vols’ offense, which averaged 43 points and more than 500 yards in the first two games.
Bray finished the first half with 153 passing yards and two touchdowns. When the Vols took a 20-13 lead, he had eight completions of 10 yards or longer. He would have just one completion the rest of the game.
“We fell apart,” Bray said.
With their eighth straight win over the Vols, the Gators continued to distance themselves from one of their longtime rival.
Tennessee once had been the primary hurdle for Florida in the SEC until a drop-off in talent and three head coaching changes since 2008 crippled the program. The Gators program, losers of nine straight games to ranked opponents before Saturday night’s win, had fallen off itself.
The Florida-Tennessee winner used to have a leg up in the SEC East. Times have changed.
But with back-to-back road wins in the conference, the Gators are trending, with SEC patsy Kentucky up next, followed by a bye week before LSU visits The Swamp on Oct. 6.
Florida opened 4-0 a season ago, but dropped five of its next six games. The Gators feel they have changed.
“This is a different 3-0,” Muschamp said.
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