Dan Fleser: Tennesee Struggles Against Florida

  • Sunday, September 17, 2023
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Florida gave Tennessee a different set of offensive woes Saturday night in the form of the Gators’ own impressive attack.

They ran a football clinic in the second quarter, scoring three touchdowns and chewing up 10 minutes, 57 seconds of game clock. In the methodical process, the Gators opened a 19-point lead and the Vols never recovered, falling 29-16 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The loss was Tennessee’s 10th in a row at the place commonly known as the Swamp. Near the game’s end, both teams scuffled after Tennessee hit Florida quarterback Graham Mertz, who was trying to run out some clock before kneeling on a fourth-down play in the final seconds.

Florida’s offensive dominance was even more impressive when considering the Gators squandered the game’s opening possession – a 14-play drive that ended with a missed field goal. Furthermore, the Vols followed with a sharp 71-yard touchdown drive, completing all four of their passes.

The Vols struggled to contain running back Trevor Etienne, who rushed for 172 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per carry. He answered Tennessee’s opening score with a 62-yard dash that featured not only his speed but also the tackling problems that plagued the Vols defenders during the first half.

Mertz created problems with his mobility, efficiency and accuracy. He completed 19 of 24 passes for 166 yards and touchdown and ran for another score. He had a hand in the Gators getting first downs on seven-of-eight third down plays during the fateful second quarter.

The final TD of the onslaught epitomized the play of both teams. With Tennessee’s Aaron Beasley bearing down on him, Mertz slipped a pass to running back Montrell Johnson Jr., who ran through Tamarion McDonald’s attempted tackle and then eluded Wesley Walker in completing the 18-yard scoring play.

Tennessee ran more plays in the third quarter than it did during the entire first half but managed just one Charles Campbell field goal. The Vols failed twice to convert on fourth down in Florida territory.

“At the end of the day, this isn’t the standard of what we do offensively,” UT coach Josh Heupel said during his Vol Network interview. “So, we’ve got to be better. It starts with the coaches, including myself, and it trickles down to our players. We’ve got to be better.”

Quarterback Joe Milton III threw for 287 yards and two TDs. His streak of consecutive passes without an interception ended at 248 in the second quarter and the turnover helped set up a Florida touchdown.

Milton was hit as he released the pass, which went airborne like a punt before being intercepted. The play reflected the offensive line’s struggles. Starting center Cooper Mays missed a third consecutive game and his absence was glaring, given the caldron-like atmosphere. Ollie Lane started in place of Mays and was whistled for three penalties. He was flagged for a personal foul after Milton’s interception, enabling Florida to start the possession at Tennessee’s 9-yard line.

Overall, the Vols were whistled for 10 penalties for 79 yards. Eight were called against the offense.

Heupel described the contentious conclusion as a “unique ending.” Considering the opponent and the setting, it wasn’t unique at all. Instead, it was all too familiar.


Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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