Igniting a raucous Neyland Stadium, rapper and Tennessee hype-man Lil Jon screamed in a video on the jumbotron pregame, “We gonna be cookin’ gator meat all night tonight.”
For three quarters, it certainly seemed like coach Will Muschamp’s Florida career was fried.
Then Florida true freshman quarterback Treon Harris replaced Jeff Driskel at the end of the third quarter and silenced the sellout crowd as the Gators rallied for a bare-knuckled 10-9 victory, knocking off the Volunteers for the 10th consecutive time.
“What an emotional win,” Muschamp said. “That’s pretty special. The perseverance, fighting through the adversity. Great crowd out there but it was good to send them home disappointed.”
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Harris, a two-time state champion at Miami Booker T. Washington High, led an inspiring comeback, piloting both fourth-quarter scoring drives after Florida’s disaster-riddled offense struggles for most of the game.
Harris, a shifty, duel-threat signal caller, rushed for 24 yards on four carries and chipped in a nice 12-yard screen pass to Matt Jones to setup Florida’s first score.
“He gave us a lift,” said Jones, who rushed for 117 yards on 23 carries. “We needed it.”
Jones scored the game’s lone touchdown — a two-yard plunge with 13:40 left in the game — and then Austin Hardin drilled the game-winning, 49-yard field goal on the very next drive with 6:20 left to play.
Florida’s defense survived Tennessee’s attempt at a furious comeback, as sophomore safety Keanu Neal snagged a diving interception deep in UF’s territory in the final minute.
“We felt like we were very stagnant and needed to make a change at quarterback in this game,” Muschamp said afterwards.
“Obviously, [Harris] brought some energy to us. I’m really proud of Treon’s composure coming into a tough place. I’m really proud of him. Moving forward, we won’t make any decisions on who will start our next ball game today. It was a very emotional win. We’re going to go home, we’re going to watch the film and see why were obviously not doing some things offensively we feel like we’re there.”
At least the Gators’ defense looked like Muschamp’s units of old.
Florida smothered UT quarterback Justin Worley all afternoon, holding the senior to just 205 yards on 39 passing attempts. The Gators forced three turnovers (two interceptions), sacked Worley six times and limited talented freshman tailback Jalen Hurd to just 39 yards on 10 carries. The Gators’ red-zone defense was fierce, too.
“We all played really well,” said Neal, who notched his third interception of season. “Everyone contributed to the game. The defensive line made great plays, brought a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We got some turnovers. Linebackers ran to the ball. The secondary, we came through and made plays also.”
Still, Florida was down 9-0 late in the third quarter and its offense was struggling to generate any positive momentum.
But then freshman cornerback Jalen Tabor, who made his first-career start, blitzed off the edge and registered a sack-fumble inside Tennessee’s 30-yard line.
“Jalen stepped up and did what he needed to do,” Neal said. “His play changed the game. It was a momentum change. It’s a positive one for us and a negative one for them.”
The Gators totaled just 47 yards on their first 20 plays, and UF was shutout by UT in the first half for the first time since 1955 — despite two weeks to prepare. Driskel was dreadful again, and his first eight passes, mostly screens and quick-hitters, netted just eight yards. Florida’s maligned junior was 11-of-23 for 59 yards and three interceptions before being benched.
Driskel’s status moving forward is murky, but Muschamp was quick to defend his quarterback after Florida’s offense was again plagued by drops, execution errors and inconsistent protection.
“It wasn’t all on Jeff,” Muschamp said.
“On one interception the running back doesn’t pickup the A-gap blizer. [Driskel] gets splattered and throws the ball errant. He has another situation with the tipped ball at the line of scrimmage. … We had too many drops. More missed signals. Our execution offensively, our communication needs to improve tremendously.”
Florida ran four drives into Tennessee territory in the first half and punted each time. Later, Driskel’s first pass after halftime was intercepted. Florida’s resolute defense responded with an interception of its own by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, but UF’s offense could not take advantage.
Driskel said the benching won’t “shake” him, but Muschamp wouldn’t comment on his status for LSU.
“If we have to play two quarterbacks moving forward, we’ll do that,” Muschamp said. “We’re going to do what it takes to win games.”