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Gators upset No. 11 Tennessee 29-16 for 10th straight home victory in series

Volunteers haven't beaten Florida at Swamp since 2003
Florida Gators running back Trevor Etienne runs for first down vs. Tennessee Volunteers, Sept. 16, 2023
Posted at 11:06 PM, Sep 16, 2023

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Trevor Etienne ran for a career-high 172 yards and a touchdown, Montrell Johnson scored twice and Florida upset No. 11 Tennessee 29-16 on Saturday night to extend the Volunteers' losing streak in Gainesville to 10.

The game ended with a scuffle and penalty flags on both teams. Florida quarterback Graham Mertz took a knee and then took exception to Omari Thomas running into him. Benches cleared, and Tennessee's Kamal Hadden and Florida's Micah Mazzccua squared off like boxers. Mazzccua clearly threw a punch. Florida's Damieon George was initially flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, and Thomas for targeting. But neither flag was enforced.

Coaches Josh Heupel and Billy Napier had an icy handshake at midfield before the teams had to return to the field for one final play.

The victory was the first in a rivalry for Napier, who last year became the first coach in school history to lose to Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State in the same season. Getting the first one under his belt should quell outside noise about Napier's long-term viability with the Gators (2-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference).

Florida Gators head coach Billy Napier paces sideline vs. Tennessee Volunteers, Sept. 16, 2023
Florida head coach Billy Napier paces the sideline during the first half against Tennessee, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla.

For the Volunteers, the 550-mile trip from Knoxville ended much like all the others over the last two decades: in heartache. Tennessee last won at the Swamp in 2003. The skid started with Phillip Fulmer and spans the Tennessee coaching tenures of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt and now Heupel.

Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) looked like it had as good a chance as any to end its road drought in the series — the Vols were 6 1/2-point favorites — but quarterback Joe Milton and his offensive line seemed lost at times just trying to get plays started.

The Vols were flagged for five false starts and had to burn two timeouts early in the second half to avoid delay-of-game penalties. The crowd noise may have even affected the refs, who seemingly erred by allowing Florida to substitute before Tennessee's fourth-and-1 play in the third quarter.

Scooby Williams stuffed Jaylen Wright in the backfield to cause a turnover on downs. The Vols failed again on fourth down on their next drive, with Milton throwing incomplete to end that drive.

Graham Mertz and Florida were much more comfortable in front of 90,751, the 12th-largest crowd at Florida Field.

Mertz completed 19 of 24 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a score. Etienne broke a 62-yard TD run in the first quarter. Johnson had a short scoring run and an 18-yard TD reception that made it 26-7 in the second.

Florida Gators running back Trevor Etienne tries to get past Tennessee Volunteers linebacker Aaron Beasley, Sept. 16, 2023
Florida running back Trevor Etienne tries to get past Tennessee linebacker Aaron Beasley during the second half Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla.

A key error down the stretch was another penalty by Tennessee. Leading 29-16, Florida lined up to go for it on fourth and 1 at their own 34. But Kurott Garland jumped offsides, handing the Gators a first down.

Two things went wrong for Florida: freshman receiver Tre Wilson, who caught Mertz's first six passes, injured his collarbone and was on the sideline in a sling in the second half, and kicker Adam Mihalek was way short on a 46-yard field goal early and had an extra point blocked.

Napier benched Mihalek in favor of Trey Smack, who hit both extra points and drilled a 26-yard field goal to give Florida a little cushion.