The No. 20 Florida Gators (2-1, 0-1 SEC) are on the road for the first time this season as they take on the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers (3-0, 0-0 SEC) in Knoxville (Tenn.). The Gators entered hostile territory as 11-point underdogs after two straight underwhelming performances.
However, the Gators are hanging in the contest through the first 30 minutes, down 17-14 with the Vols at halftime.
Heading into the contest with a firm grasp of the importance of the SEC East bout -- having already dropped one to Kentucky in the first quarter of the regular season -- the Gators put a heavy emphasis on this week four matchup this week in preparation. According to JACK edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr., this game, like others against conference opponents, is worth double as they attempt to stay afloat in the race for Atlanta.
"All East games' are worth double around here," he said on Wednesday. "Yeah, we fell short one game so this game is like, honestly, it’s like a championship game for us so we got to take it serious.”
They've played accordingly to begin the first half.
The game opened as an offensive struggle characterized by stalled drives and turnovers. Florida reached striking distance twice but came up empty on both occasions.
Tennessee's story was relatively similar.
Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller, who returned to action after a one-game absence due to a lower-body injury, made his presence felt to the Vols as he reintroduced himself to the gridiron on Saturday.
With the Tennessee offense moving swiftly down the field on their first drive of the game, quarterback Hendon Hooker found tight end Princeton Fant on the right hash. He cut back into the middle of the field away from the defensive back holding an outside shade on him in coverage. As he pushed upfield, Miller trailed behind, formed a fist and punch the ball free from Fant.
Gators STAR Tre'Vez Johnson recovered at the FLA 25.
The Gators' drive that ensued failed to amount to points with Florida kicker Adam Mihalek missing his first attempt of the day from 50 yards out. Tennessee retook possession at their own 34, driving down to knock through a field goal attempt to make it 3-0.
The pace picked up in the second quarter as both squads began exchanging touchdowns and, subsequently, the lead.
First, the Gators opened the quarter in the midst of an eventual eight-play, 75-yard drive that Florida kept alive with a risky 4th down conversion inside their own territory.
The drive culminated when UF hit the Tennessee 44. Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson bounced around in the pocket to elude trouble, keeping his eyes downfield to find a streaking Keon Zipperer.
Already presenting a sizable gain, Zipperer turned into a rusher, breaking multiple tackles before breaking into the end zone. In the process, Richardson and the Gators earned their first passing touchdown of the year.
The Vols answered 42 seconds later as they took a deep shot to wideout Bru McCoy, exploiting the evident miscommunication from the Florida secondary that allowed McCoy to run past safety Trey Dean uncovered. Hooker capped off the three-play, 75-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run to retake the lead 10-7.
Richardson returned the sentiment with a touchdown rush of his own at 8:28 remaining to retake the lead in a back-and-forth battle, albeit with a more monotonous approach. The Gators went 75 yards in eight plays for the second time in the quarter to retake the lead, 14-10.
Late-half heroics by Tennessee allowed them to trade the final blow of the half, scoring a touchdown with seven seconds remaining to go up 17-14.
Florida's success stems from the play of Richardson, despite coming into the contest struggling as a passer, as he’s accounted for a single-game career-high 220 yards passing, 41 yards rushing and two total touchdowns in the half.
The Gators won the coin toss and elected to receive, giving the Volunteers the ball to start the second half.
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