GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Billy Napier navigated a sea of family, friends and fans waiting to congratulate him on his most important victory as Florida’s head coach. He shook hands, handed out hugs and even posed for photos.
He was in no hurry to end the adulation either.
“We will celebrate tonight, I promise,” Napier said.
Trevor Etienne ran for a career-high 172 yards and a touchdown, Montrell Johnson scored twice and Florida beat No. 11 Tennessee 29-16 Saturday night to extend the Volunteers’ losing streak in Gainesville to 10.
The win was the first in a rivalry for Napier, who last year became the first coach in school history to lose to Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State in the same season. Getting that first one under his belt should quiet the outside noise about Napier’s long-term viability with the Gators (2-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference).
“It validates your plan, what you’re selling to a certain extent,” Napier said. “That’s what you want as a leader. …It’s a lot more fun.
For the Volunteers, the 550-mile journey from Knoxville ended like all others over the past two decades: in heartbreak. Tennessee last won at the Swamp in 2003. The skid began with Phillip Fulmer and spans the Tennessee coaching tenures of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt and now Josh Heupel.
Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) seemed to have as good a chance as any to end its series road drought — the Vols were 6 1/2-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook — but the quarterback Joe Milton and his offensive line looked lost at times, just trying to run plays.
The Vols, who have now lost 17 of 19 games in the series, were flagged for five false starts and had to burn two timeouts early in the second half to avoid delay of game penalties.
“The pre-snap penalties killed us,” Heupel said.
The crowd noise may have even affected the referees, who apparently made a mistake in allowing Florida to sub before Tennessee’s fourth-and-1 play in the third quarter. Scooby Williams placed Jaylen Wright in the backfield to cause a turnover on downs.
“The referee kicked or moved the ball and spotted it,” Heupel said. “They authorized the replacement. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an official kick a ball.
The Vols failed again on fourth down on their next drive, with Milton throwing an incomplete throw to end it. Tennessee finished the night 0-of-3 on fourth down.
Graham Mertz and Florida were much more comfortable in front of 90,751, the 12th largest crowd at Florida Field.
“Man, it got loud,” Mertz said. “I was on the sidelines and I couldn’t hear my coach (standing) in front of me. It changed. … They really affected the game.”
Mertz completed 19 of 24 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. He also hit a defender on a third down play and then ran to score. Etienne broke a 62-yard TD run in the first quarter. Johnson had a short scoring run and 18-yard touchdown reception that made it 26-7 in the second.
“There were a lot of mistakes on our end,” Vols linebacker Aaron Beasley said. “There was some undiscipline on our part. We don’t adapt to many things.
A key mistake down the stretch for Tennessee: Leading 29-16, Florida lined up for a chance on fourth-and-1 from its own 34. But Kurott Garland jumped offside, giving the United States a first down. Gators and prompting Napier to raise both arms. party.
Two things went wrong for Florida: Freshman wide receiver Tre Wilson, who caught Mertz’s first six passes, injured his collarbone and was sidelined on a sling in the second half, and kicker Adam Mihalek was well short of a 46-yard field goal early and had an extra point blocked.
Napier benched Mihalek in favor of Trey Smack, who made both extra points and kicked a 26-yard field goal to give Florida a small cushion.
The match ended with a fight and penalty flags between the two teams. Mertz took a knee and then objected as defensive lineman Omari Thomas bumped into him. The benches cleared and Tennessee defensive back Kamal Hadden and Florida guard Micah Mazzccua squared off like boxers. Mazzccua clearly threw a punch. Florida right tackle Damieon George was initially flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and Thomas for targeting. But neither flag was applied.
“It was just the strangest ending to a game I’ve ever experienced,” Mertz said. “I guess it’s Florida-Tennessee.”
Heupel and Napier had an icy handshake at midfield before the teams had to return to the field for one final play.
“Do we want to be calm in this situation and in all situations? Absolutely,” Heupel said. “Their guy is dancing, and you have to go tackle him.”
Tennessee: The Volunteers outgained Florida 393-349 in yards, but Milton threw a first-half interception — his first in 250 Tennessee pass attempts — and never found any rhythm. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 287 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. He also recovered his own fumble.
Florida: The Gators bounced back well after a first game filled with errors then number 1. 14Utah. They manhandled McNeese last week and beat Tennessee to give themselves a chance in the East Division.
The Volunteers are sure to be in the upcoming Associated Press Top 25 college football poll, which will be released Sunday.
Tennessee: Hosts the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) next Saturday.
Florida: hosts Charlotte next Saturday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll