With 19 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the clouds of negativity that had been hanging over the Florida football program for two weeks parted. The rays of sunshine were provided by freshman Treon Harris, who came in with the Gators trailing 9-0 and delivered two scoring drives to lift Florida (3-1, 2-1 SEC) to a 10-9 win over the Tennessee Vols (2-3, 0-2 SEC) in Knoxville.
“I’m really proud of Treon Harris the way he responded when he came in the game,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp, who said the quarterback change “wasn’t all on Jeff (Driskel). We needed a change of pace … you go with the hot hand and he (Harris) had the hot hand at the time.”
Florida’s offense sputtered and stalled all day with Jeff Driskel running the show. The Gators only managed 122 yards in the first half, but things got progressively worse in the third quarter as Driskel threw two interceptions and was sacked three times. It was after the third sack that Driskel’s day was finished and the keys to the offense were turned over to Harris, who delivered a touchdown drive on his first series and a drive that ended with a 49-yard Austin Hardin field goal that proved to be the winner on his second.
Harris provided the spark but the Florida defense was the foundation of a critical win coming on the heels of a blowout (42-21) loss at Alabama a couple of weeks ago. Just prior to Harris entering the game, freshman corner Jalen Tabor delivered the defensive play of the game, sacking Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley and forcing a fumble that he recovered at the Vol 30. From there, Harris directed a five-play scoring drive that ended with a two-yard blast up the gut by Matt Jones with 13:40 left in the game.
The defense got the ball back for the Gators, in part thanks to a sack of Worley by Bryan Cox Jr., one of six sacks on the afternoon by the Florida defense. Taking over on the Florida 19, Harris was cool, calm and collected as he drove the Gators to the game-winning field goal by Hardin. The most critical play on the drive was a six-yard pass from Harris to tight end Tevin Westbrook to convert a third and five. On the next play, Matt Jones broke away for a 32-yard run that got the ball into Tennessee territory. When the Tennessee defense stiffened, the Gators sent in Hardin, who was 4-13 in his career and 0-6 beyond 40 yards. Hardin’s ball was hooking but it stayed true enough to sneak through the uprights to put the Gators ahead for the first time.
With the exception of those two scoring drives, the Florida offense shot blanks. The defense, however, was another story altogether. The Gators held the Vols to 234 total yards but only 28 came on the ground. The Gators picked off Worley twice and came up with the fumble caused by Tabor. Although Worley threw for 206 yards, he was only 10-20 for 80 yards in the second half and was sacked four times.
When the defense really showed its worth was in the red zone. The Vols got there three times, but couldn’t cash in with touchdowns. Florida forced three Austin Medley field goals. In their four trips into the red zone, the Vols went backward, losing 12 yards.
This is the same Florida defense that gave up 645 yards to Alabama, but with changes that saw Brian Poole at the nickel, Duke Dawson at safety and Tabor at the corner opposite Vernon Hargreaves III, the Gators kept everything in front of the safeties and turned the Tennessee passing game into dink and dunk. Hargreaves delivered a third-quarter interception to thwart a Tennessee scoring threat and Keanu Neale snuffed out Tennessee’s drive after the Hardin field goal with a diving pick at the Florida 23.
Bryan Cox finished the game with three sacks good for 26 yards in losses while Antonio Morrison led Florida’s swarming front seven with 11 tackles including a couple for losses totaling 10 yards.
For Driskel, it was a game to forget. He threw three interceptions and was sacked three times for 27 yards in losses. Not all of the ineptitude was the fault of Driskel. His wide receivers dropped four passes and two of the three picks came on balls that first hit the hands of a Florida receiver.
It was the third quarter, though, that did Driskel in. He was intercepted on his first pass of the third quarter, took a third down sack on Florida’s second possession, missed a wide open Demarcus Robinson for what would have been an easy 80-yard touchdown on the third possession and ended that series with another interception. He also took sacks that were drive killers on the third and fourth possessions.
But when Harris came into the game, the entire demeanor of the offense changed. The Gators played with energy and poise and Harris looked like a focused veteran, not like a true freshman who has only been on campus since July.
The win was Florida’s 10th straight over Tennessee and keeps the Gators very much in the thick of the SEC East championship mix. With a 2-1 record, the Gators are tied with Georgia, a game behind Missouri (1-0 SEC) which is idle this week. The Gators play host to LSU next week while Tennessee, now 0-2 in SEC play, will step out of conference to play D1AA Chattanooga.
TENNESSEE 3, FLORIDA 0: The Vols got on the board with 13:23 remaining in the first half on a 36-yard Aaron Medley field goal. The scoring drive was set up by a Cameron Sutton interception that was not the fault of Driskel. Driskel made a back shoulder throw to Demarcus Robinson who mistimed his jump and tipped the ball into the hands of Sutton, who made the pick at the Tennessee 47. The scoring drive covered 36 yards with key plays a 13-yard Justin Worley to Marquez North completion on a third and 10 and a 17-yard Worley to Josh Malone pass to the UF 22. The Florida defense dug in from there and forced the field goal.
TENNESSEE 6, FLORIDA 0: Following Driskel’s second intercepted pass of the second half, the Vols got starting position in the red zone but three plays netted a loss of four yards, forcing Medley to come on to kick a 38-yard field goal with 9:26 left in the third quarter. The interception came on a crossing pattern in which Driskel’s pass led Tevin Westbrook just a little too much and the ball skipped off his hands and into the waiting arms of Todd Kelly Jr. who ran the ball back 21 yards to the Florida 17.
TENNESSEE 9, FLORIDA 0: The Vols put together a promising drive that once again stalled out in the red zone, forcing Medley’s third field goal of the game. Taking over on the Vol 33, Justin Worley hit passes of 18 yards to Devirin Young and 27 yards to Jonathan Johnson that gave Tennessee the ball on the Florida 13. Florida’s defense came alive, stuffed the Vols on three consecutive plays and forced Medley to kick a 38-yard field goal for a 9-0 lead with 2:21 to go in the quarter.
FLORIDA 7, TENNESSEE 9: The change Florida fans had been begging for came on the final play of the third quarter. Following a sack on a safety blitz by Jalen Tabor that forced Worley to cough up the ball (Tabor recovered on the UT 30), Treon Harris entered the game. After a minimal gain on the final play of the third quarter, Harris made his presence felt, hitting Jones with a swing pass out of the backfield for 12 yards and then taking a quarterback draw straight up the gut to the Tennessee 5. Two plays later, Jones powered into the end zone for the touchdown and Velez added the extra point to bring the Gators back to life.
FLORIDA 10, TENNESSEE 9: Harris put points on the board in his second series, taking the Gators eight plays and 49 yards where the Gators got a 49-yard field goal from Austin Hardin to take a 10-9 lead with 6:20 remaining in the game. The key plays on the drive were a Harris to Tevin Westbrook pass good for six yards and a first down on a critical third and five and a 32-yard Matt Jones run to the Tennessee 38. When the Gators stalled, Austin Hardin was brought on to attempt a 49-yard field goal that kept hooking left but stayed within the uprights to give the Gators the lead.
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