The Florida Gators looked just lethargic enough early on against Tennessee on Saturday to worry about a hangover from their close loss to Alabama.
Maybe the Gatorade helped. But the Gators aided themselves plenty, too.
After two early touchdowns on explosive plays for the Volunteers, Florida scored the game’s final 24 points and shut out Tennessee in the second half, riding a career-best performance from Emory Jones to a 38-14 win.
Jones — Florida’s unquestioned starter in the eyes of Dan Mullen and its embattled QB1 in the minds of many fans whose eyes have grown wide at the brimming potential and promise of backup Anthony Richardson — was fantastic on the night, rebounding from a couple of poor throws and slow decisions early on to complete 21 of 27 throws for 209 yards and two touchdowns and run for 144 yards, each his best total as a Gator.
Jones became the second Florida quarterback to rush for 100 yards in a game this month with a 49-yard sprint in the early fourth quarter, and became the first Gator since Tim Tebow to tally 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in a game on Florida’s final drive.
But while Jones and receiver Trent Whittemore — who threw a touchdown to Kemore Gamble on a double pass play just after halftime — paced Florida’s good but unspectacular passing game, Jones and the impossibly deep Gators backfield were busy grinding yet another defense to dust on the ground.
Jones got his yardage on a mixture of scrambles and designed runs, darting by defenders that had mostly bottled up Florida’s running backs early on. And a greater focus on Jones would open up space and generate opportunities for Nay’Quan Wright, Dameon Pierce, and Malik Davis, who combined for another 139 yards on the ground and both of the team’s rushing touchdowns. (Davis also hauled in a short receiving touchdown, his first.)
Florida’s 283 rushing yards gives these Gators 240 or more in each of their four contests this season — and surely sends a Tennessee team that came in allowing just 54.3 yards per game and 1.7 yards per carry plummeting down the national rankings.
The Gators also weathered an early combination from the Vols that seemed to stagger them, if only briefly. After Florida forced a three-and-out and scored on its opening drive, Tennessee answered, with Hendon Hooker finding TiYon Evans on a screen pass that would cover 47 yards and lead to a 7-7 tie.
And the Vols responded to a Florida field goal with a 75-yard strike from Hooker to Javonta Payton that produced a 14-10 lead.
But the Gators would strike back to go up 17-14 before halftime — and might have put more points on the board before the break had a play been signaled dead on a fine Jacob Copeland reception on a fourth down. Instead, Copeland had the ball ripped from his grasp before the whistle blew, and the fumble recovery by the Vols both ended Florida’s threat to score and gave the Vols a chance to stage a drive that would end with a missed field goal as the half expired.
Tennessee ran up an impressive 423 yards on Florida’s defense — almost 100 more than Alabama mustered a week ago — but gained more than 300 of them on drives that did not end in points, an especially impressive victory of the Pyrrhic variety when considering the Vols’ zero turnovers.
With the win, Florida improves to 16-1 in the last 17 games of what was once one of the most competitive rivalries in college football — the same record it owns against Kentucky over the last 17 meetings in what was once the best-known streak of dominance in college football. And the Gators did it one week after the sort of valiant effort against Alabama that has left some teams bruised — both literally and figuratively — and others thinking that they had already accomplished enough to let up.
Early returns suggest this Florida team isn’t in either of those categories.