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Tennessee 38, Florida 33: Gators go down fighting despite defensive deficiencies

A resurgent Anthony Richardson and a resilient — if not exactly rock-ribbed — Florida team gave Tennessee a run in an unexpected bout.

NCAA Football: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Most of what led to Florida holding 7-3 and 14-10 leads over Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday was at least a little unexpected. With Anthony Richardson looking composed and dangerous as both a passer and a runner, the Gators drove the ball on Tennessee with surprising ease, and a failed fourth down and missed field goal likely kept them from getting more points in the ledger; Tennessee, meanwhile, made big plays that Florida seemed either entirely unready for or entirely ancillary to, and got its own offense whirring as a result.

The Vols doing some more expected stuff — using the seconds preserved by a Billy Napier timeout before a third down just before halftime to jump-start one touchdown drive and scoring almost immediately after intermission to swing the game from a 14-10 Florida edge to Tennessee’s 24-14 advantage — probably secured the win for the favored home team, too.

Except: Florida never quite went away, and the Vols never quite put the Gators away, either, ultimately having to come up with a pick on a Hail Mary to stave off a team that had trailed by 17 earlier in the fourth quarter.

Add it all up and you get a 38-33 win for Tennessee — its first over Florida since 2016 and just its second over the Gators since 2003 — that managed to both confirm that the Vols are ascending and suggest that Florida isn’t too far off.

Anthony Richardson is, of course, the primary reason why the Gators can still think glory is at hand on any given play or Saturday. And he was brilliant on almost every snap of this game, throwing for 453 yards and rushing for 62 more while accounting for three touchdowns — including his first through the air of this season — and looking about as good as he ever has in orange and blue.

But a critical fumble while Florida was driving toward a score that would have shortened Tennessee’s lead to a single possession was his and Florida’s greatest offensive mistake of the day, and his valiant effort to will the Gators back late with an array of excellent throws was not enough to complete an absurd comeback, with Tennessee blitzing him on the final play and forcing an interception on an underthrown ball launched with a defender draped on him.

Slightly less heroism might have been necessary had Florida’s defense offered any resistance on the day.

Hendon Hooker nearly matched Richardson’s yardage, throwing for 349 yards and rushing for another 112, and had three touchdowns of his own, but Tennessee also got another 115 rushing yards from Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright, who each scored rushing touchdowns, and was never forced to punt.

Florida’s stops — on a Ventrell Miller-forced fumble in the first quarter, a fourth down in the second that featured a Miller-recovered fumble on a strip-sack by Amari Burney, and a fourth down with Tennessee up 11 late and seemingly safe — were few and far between, with the Vols clocking a stunning 8.23 yards per play and Hooker escaping threats often.

Most importantly, he dodged a rushing Brenton Cox just prior to halftime, avoiding a sack that might have given Florida a great chance to tack on more points to its tally before half and throwing a short completion. That play prompted a timeout prior to a third and short by Napier, who clearly hoped to preserve time to get his offense that shot.

Instead, Tennessee converted and took its own timeout — and then Hooker threw a gorgeous ball that a diving Ramel Keyton turned into an even more gorgeous full-extension catch, sparking a Tennessee response that wrested control from the Gators’ mitts.

But three pass plays of 40 or more yards and two rushes of 39 or more reflected a Vols offense that hit on the shots that it missed last year in Gainesville, and it wasn’t just that one moment in which Florida’s defense, and most notably safety Trey Dean and corner Jason Marshall Jr., seemed overwhelmed by the task at hand, even with Miller providing a massive boost in both his personal play and apparent leadership.

And yet, in a game that Tennessee spent almost all of the second half leading by double digits, Florida found its path to victory only heavily obstructed rather than closed late in the fourth quarter. Richardson accounted for every yard of offense other than a five-yard touchdown run from Montrell Johnson Jr. in answering Tennessee’s 38-21 lead with a touchdown, and then, after Florida’s defense summoned one stop, mustered all of the 71 yards on a touchdown drive to cut the lead to 38-33.

Failed two-point conversions on both drives put Florida in the position of needing another touchdown to win with just seconds on the clock, and the wisdom of attempting them can — and will — be debated. But Diwun Black snagging the Gators’ second onside kick attempt of the frame still gave Florida its unexpected last chance to shock the world in the first place, and without heroics like that play, Richardson’s day, and the defense finding a way after giving up 576 yards, the 100,000 or so Vols fans who packed Neyland Stadium might be feeling a lot better after a dominant triumph right now.

Florida was not good enough on this day to win this game — but it is clear that Florida, even when not at its best this fall, is going to be a difficult team to simply beat. They may be wounded or flagging, but these Gators will assuredly be fighting.

And if they can figure out how to be their best, that level of play may be surprisingly high.