Gators’ Reputation Rises with Convincing Win over Volunteers

Ken Cross

September 19, 2023 at 12:34 pm.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At some points in a new football season, there are early moments that define which way a team will likely travel.

For the Florida Gators and Coach Billy Napier, Saturday’s impressive 29-16 win over No. 11 Tennessee saw both at a crossroad. The Gators needed the win for confidence and Napier needed the win for at least another week of sustainability as the head coach at Florida.

Both had a checkmark in the satisfactory column as Florida took a 12-7 lead on a touchdown by Montrell Johnson with 9:28 left in the first half never trailed again.

“I think for your players, it galvanizes your team a little bit,” explained Napier. “I think ultimately we’re over the top at times, but it has saved us in the past.”

Florida fell behind, 7-0, almost immediately as Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton, III, hit Ramel Keyton with an 11-yard touchdown pass which capped a six-play, 71-yard drive. Just a play earlier, he found Squirrel White with a 41-yard pass play that set up Tennessee in the red zone.

“Offense had the one drive, and the defense got the one-stop,” said Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel. “Other than that, it’s not the way you want to start. I do appreciate the competitiveness of the guys coming to compete and play in the second half.”

The Gators are becoming known for their two-back attack where Montrell Johnson is generally going between the tackles, while Trevor Etienne is the speedster who can start between the tackles and cut outside on either end to have a big play. Etienne answered Tennessee’s first touchdown with a 62-yard run off the left side as the Gators cut the Volunteers’ lead to 7-6 late in the first quarter.

“Trevor was on fire out there tonight,” noted Napier. “Just the instincts, the vision. He and Montrell were both in situations where they made the guys miss tackles.”

The balance in Florida’s offense was key as Etienne carried 27 times for 172 yards and the score. Johnson carried the ball 12 times for 23 yards and Etienne was the offensive elixir for the speed on the Tennessee defense.

“After contact, he created big plays,” said Napier. “You think about the screen, Montrell gets a little piece of the guy. Both of those guys have great contact balance.”

Florida quarterback Graham Mertz continues to play with efficiency as he is not forcing the ball down the field. He finds both backs the right and left flats and has completed 75.3 percent of his passes in his first three games where he has three TD tosses and only one pick.

“I think we’re playing complete offensive football,” explained Mertz. “When you are running the football effectively and you’re making plays in the passing game, you’re executing on third down. I think the big thing about college football is to stay ahead of the sticks.”

Mertz has disciplined himself to stay inside his job in the Gators’ offense. He hasn’t forced things downfield and his mind is focused on correct decision making.

“These players, I owe them everything I have got and that’s what I am going to give them every single day,” said Mertz.

Mertz had a one-yard touchdown run and had an 18-yard TD pass to Johnson to give Florida a 26-7 halftime margin.

Florida put its offense on ice in the second half as Tennessee outgained them 251-86 in total yardage. The Vols wound up getting held on downs on three of their five second-half possessions.

“Tennessee is a great team,” said Mertz said. “I am proud of how we executed at the moment where you needed to make the play.”