KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After last week's three-point victory at Texas A&M, coach Will Muschamp told Florida fans to get used to a slugfest, grind-it-out style of play. That, he said, is who the Gators are right now.
Maybe. Maybe not.
No. 18 Florida trailed for most of the first half and the majority of the third quarter before a two-possession breakout helped it to a 37-20 victory over No. 23 Tennessee in front of 104,255 at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
The Gators now have consecutive come-from-behind wins for the first time since 1966.
"We have put a tremendous emphasis on winning the fourth quarter, winning the second half and wearing down our opponent," Muschamp said.
Florida (3-0, 2-0 SEC) has won eight consecutive games over Tennessee and is 3-0 for the eighth consecutive season. The victory was the first over a ranked opponent for Muschamp in his second season and Florida's first since the January 2010 Sugar Bowl over Cincinnati. It was the most points scored by the Gators in Knoxville since a 43-30 victory in 1984.
Last season, Florida opened with victories against Florida Atlantic, UAB and Tennessee. This season's first victory came against Bowling Green.
"This is a different 3-0," Muschamp said.
"The (opponents) are better teams."
This was supposed to be a statement game for two teams trying to get back to relevance. Florida made the ultimate statement — albeit late.
Leading 14-10, the Vols (2-1, 0-1) got a 1-yard touchdown run from A.J. Johnson with 7:33 left in the third but missed the extra point.
Florida's next possession ended with a botched fake punt on fourth and 9 at its 42 with 5:00 left. That seemed poised to doom the Gators.
But the defense held. And suddenly, Florida no longer was content to grind it out. Instead, it spread it out and in a span of 2:45 rose up.
Junior Trey Burton lined up in the wildcat and ran 80 yards in 12 seconds to tie the score at 20 with 3:15 left in the quarter. On the ensuing possession, junior safety Matt Elam intercepted Tyler Bray. Three plays later, sophomore Jeff Driskel connected on a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Reed for a 27-20 lead with 1:19 left.
Just like that: four plays, 150 yards, two touchdowns and one lead.
"We have athletes all over the field," said Driskel, who was 14-of-20 for 219 yards and two touchdowns. "We know if we keep giving them the ball, eventually they are going to break one."
The Gators punted on their next possession. But on third and 8 of their next one, Driskel connected on a 75-yard touchdown pass to senior Frankie Hammond. The drive covered 78 yards in three plays and 1:32.
"We had a good game going until about late in the third (quarter)," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "We gave up some huge plays and never could get it going on offense. I give Florida a lot of credit. They did a really good job late in the third and early in the fourth, and we couldn't recover. We were a little shell-shocked. Those were just enormous plays in the game."
Florida outscored Tennessee 27-6 in the second half and had nine plays of 20 or more yards for the game.
The Gators were hampered by multiple penalties in the first half but managed to overcome the mistakes. The second half was a stark contrast. In the first, Bray had a field day with Florida's secondary. He was 13-of-23 for 153 yards and two touchdowns (21-of-34 for 249 for the game), and the Gators couldn't cover receivers Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Mychal Rivera.
But the defense stiffened, holding the Vols to 5 total yards in the fourth quarter.
Burton scored the Gators' only first-half touchdown, a 14-yard run in the first quarter. Burton, senior running back Mike Gillislee and Driskel combined for 29 carries for 287 yards.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]