Gators nip Vols, 21-20

Tennessee football fans heard all week how outstanding seventh-ranked Florida's defensive line was. Well, the Gator front four proved to be just as good as advertised Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

Florida's defensive line was the difference as the Gators nipped the 13th-ranked Big Orange 21-20 before an emotionally-charged crowd of 106,818 and a national TV audience. Florida's front helped limit the Vols to minus-11 net rushing yards. It also harassed UT quarterback Erik Ainge, who entered the game as the NCAA leader in passer efficiency. Ainge finished 17 of 32 passing for 183 yards with two interceptions.

Asked about the Vols' pitiful rushing total, head coach Phillip Fulmer noted: "You're going to have a hard time winning in this league unless you can rush the ball better than that."

With star tailback Arian Foster slowed by an ankle injury, backup Montario Hardesty did most of the legwork for the Vols. He finished with 14 net yards on 17 carries. His longest run - UT's longest of the night - gained just five yards.

"I think Montario did a nice job," Fulmer said. "We didn't give him anywhere to run up front."

Foster made a brief appearance but clearly was not 100 percent. He gained two yards on two rushes. LaMarcus Coker, the No. 3 tailback, was part of the Vols' biggest play, catching a 48-yard flanker pass from Lucas Taylor for Tennessee's first touchdown.

The Vols also had an eight-play, 61-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter and James Wilhoit field goals of 36 and 51 yards - the latter matching his career best.

Tennessee led 17-7 late in the third quarter but Florida outscored the Vols 14-3 over the game's final 20 minutes to notch the win. Chris Leak completed a four-yard TD toss to Dallas Baker that narrowed the gap to 17-14 with 1:16 left in the third period, then found a wide-open Baker with a 21-yard strike with 6:30 to go in the game.

The Vols advanced to Florida's 39-yard line on their final drive of the game but linebacker Brandon Siler sacked Ainge for a 14-yard loss and Reggie Nelson intercepted Ainge's desperation throw three plays later to seal the deal.

Fulmer dismissed the notion that his team relaxed after building its 17-7 lead, noting: "I don't think we took our foot off the gas pedal. Florida just rose to the occasion, and we didn't."

Leak finished 15 of 25 for 199 yards and three TDs. DeShawn Wynn led Florida rushers with 104 yards on 22 carries and was especially effective against a tiring Vol defense in the final period.

"They ran the ball better the second half than I thought they could against our defense," Fulmer noted.

The Gators finished with 320 yards of total offense, while their dominating front four helped limit Tennessee to 220.

"They did a nice job; they had answers," Fulmer said. "They did a really good job with their scheme - bringing different things at different times to affect the run game with extra people."

Counting the flanker pass from Taylor to Coker, Tennessee burned Florida's suspect secondary for 231 passing yards. Once the Vols fell behind and had to pass almost every down, though, Florida's front four put tremendous pressure on Ainge.

"If we could have protected a little bit better, I don't think they could've covered us, actually," Fulmer said. "But we didn't protect as well as we needed to."

Saturday night's game had two touchdowns nullified by penalty and, incredibly, they occurred on back-to-back snaps. The first saw an apparent 85-yard punt return by Flordia's Brandon James called back because of an illegal block in the back. The very next play saw a 30-yard interception return by Vol linebacker Marvin Mitchell wiped out by a roughing-the-passer penalty against UT's Jonathan Mapu.

Fulmer declined comment on the questionable call against Mapu except to note that "It seemed like a lot of calls tonight had a lot to do with the game."

Since Tennessee's biggest play of the night was a gimmick play - the 48-yard flanker pass from Taylor to Coker - Fulmer was asked if he considered utilizing a few more tricks.

"Once we got up, no, not really," he said with a chuckle. "Maybe we should've."

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