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Florida rallies, survives a thriller vs. Tennessee

Florida quarterback Will Grier (7) throws a pass as he is pressured by Tennessee defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis (4) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Florida quarterback Will Grier (7) throws a pass as he is pressured by Tennessee defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis (4) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Published Sep. 27, 2015

GAINESVILLE — Even in practice, Florida's winning, fourth-down touchdown pass doesn't work as well as it did Saturday.

Quarterback Will Grier might hit freshman receiver Antonio Callaway, but for a first down — not a streaking, 63-yard score.

"He turned that first down into a touchdown," Grier said.

And UF turned that touchdown, with 1:26 left, into the deciding play of its 28-27 win over Tennessee to give the Gators (4-0, 2-0 SEC) their eighth 4-0 start since 2002. They also extended their win streak in the rivalry to a series-high 11 games.

"Down deep, you just don't lose to Tennessee," coach Jim McElwain said. "And they didn't."

Instead McElwain's team rallied for a 13-point fourth-quarter comeback — UF's second-largest since 1966 — in front of 90,527 noisy fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Tennessee (2-2, 0-1) dominated most of the game, once the Vols abandoned their conventional offense for some trickery.

Quarterback Joshua Dobbs threw a lateral left to freshman receiver Jauan Jennings, who threw it back to Dobbs, who streaked down the right sideline for a 58-yard touchdown which tied the score at 7 in the first.

On fourth and 2 early in the second quarter, running back Alvin Kamara took a handoff and paused before lobbing a 24-yard jump pass to tight end Ethan Wolf to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, running back Jalen Hurd powered in for a 1-yard touchdown run against UF's heralded, hard-hitting defense.

When Tennessee plowed through tackles with a 16-play, 70-yard touchdown drive to take a 27-14 lead with 10:19 left the Gators looked spent. UF had punted in six of its previous eight drives — but Tennessee left the door open by not going for two.

But as UF's offense sped up, the players relaxed. Teammates encouraged Grier, who was the only quarterback option with sophomore Treon Harris serving a one-game suspension.

"Make a play," receiver Brandon Powell said. "You're the quarterback for a reason."

The redshirt freshman made several.

After completing 12 of his first 24 passes, Grier completed 11 of his last 18. He hit tight end Jake McGee for one fourth-down conversion and found Powell on another moments later. Powell battled cramps to catch a 5-yard touchdown with 4:09 left that cut UF's deficit to 27-21.

"I think as the game went on, we started to click," Grier said.

UF's defense forced a three and out to give Grier the ball back with 2:18 left. A failed screen pass and two incompletions led to fourth and 14 from the UF 37. McElwain called a play that's one of the staples of Friday practices: Train Right, Jill, Big Ben In.

"Why?" McElwain said. "Why not?"

Grier hit Callaway for 18 yards over the middle. Normally in practice, the play goes for a first down to keep a drive alive. But Callaway spun back and had an opening down the right sideline.

"I thought he was going to get caught," Powell said, "but he made a great move."

Powell came back to throw a block and clear a path for Callaway to sprint the final 45 yards for the go-ahead touchdown as UF was 5-for-5 on fourth downs — and 10-for-10 this season.

McElwain turned his attention to making sure his team didn't celebrate too much and earn a 15-yard penalty that would help the Vols get into field-goal range in the final 1:26.

"That was the only thing I was worried about at the time," McElwain said. "A field goal would beat us."

And it almost did. Tennessee drove 31 yards to set up Aaron Medley's 55-yard try, which sailed inches wide of the right upright to set off the latest victory celebration over the Vols.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.