Florida knocks off No. 11 Tennessee in The Swamp: How Gators orchestrated the upset

By Manny Navarro, Joe Rexrode and David Ubben

In a matchup between SEC East foes, Florida pulled off an upset to down No. 11 Tennessee 29-16 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Gators running back Trevor Etienne was a workhorse for Florida, rushing for a 62-yard touchdown and averaging 7.5 yards per carry on 23 attempts.
  • Florida quarterback Graham Mertz threw for 166 yards and a TD on 19-of-24 passing.
  • Though Tennessee QB Joe Milton III found a rhythm in the fourth quarter and hit Bru McCoy for a 55-yard touchdown, the Vols couldn’t complete the comeback. Milton finished with 287 yards and two touchdowns against one interception.

The Athletic’s instant analysis:

Etienne delivers

Florida’s offense still has a ways to go, but Etienne is obviously a huge building block going forward. He proved he could handle a heavy workload and a starring role. He ran for a career-high 169 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 22 carries.

Etienne had never carried it more than 17 times in a game prior to Saturday’s game, and it’s safe to say the talented sophomore should be in line for more nights like the one he had if given the opportunity. He had six runs go for 12 or more yards including the 62-yard touchdown run early which completely changed the momentum of the game. — Navarro 

Gators defense deserves most of the credit

If there was a hero for Florida not named Etienne in Saturday night’s upset, it’s defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong. The Gators were a mess on defense last season: 87th in points per game and 97th in yards allowed per game. Florida improved its roster through the portal and recruiting, but Armstrong has obviously put guys in the right places and there’s a stark difference already in his first year on the job. Florida only produced one sack, but the pressure put on Milton — with a lot of pre-snap movement — disrupted Tennessee’s offense most of the night. — Navarro 

Vols had much bigger issues than quarterback

Much of the talk will be about starting quarterback for the Vols, and at this point there’s no question this team is taking a massive step backward at the position from Hendon Hooker to Milton. But Tennessee’s issues were much more about the five guys trying to block for Milton, and basically every guy trying to play defensive back for the Vols. All of them had at least one critical mistake, and the collective tackling from the back end was atrocious.

Offensive line was a strength for last season’s team, but this one needs Cooper Mays back at center. He warmed up but wasn’t able to go in this one. The secondary is an ongoing issue, and against the best passing attacks on the schedule, it looks like rough sledding is ahead. This was not one of the best passing attacks on the schedule, by the way. — Rexrode

Mistakes doom Tennessee

Tennessee will be kicking itself all the way home to Rocky Top. A Florida team that looked lost on offense against Utah racked up 26 first-half points, aided in part by Milton’s first career interception and shoddy tackling that helped extend Florida runs and drives.

Tennessee’s failed scoring chances in Florida territory in the second half and untimely penalties cost them a chance to win in The Swamp for the first time since 2003. The Vols settled for a field goal on their first drive and had a pair of failed fourth downs on their next two possessions that resulted in a failed second-half comeback attempt.

Tennessee’s rebuilt team without quarterback Hooker, right tackle Darnell Wright and receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman was still something of an unknown entity, but a new group didn’t handle their first road trip of the season well. The cavalcade of mistakes dug the Vols into a hole the offense wasn’t explosive enough to escape. It’s a long season, but Tennessee will go back to Knoxville with a lot to prove and even more questions about itself coming off last year’s 11-win campaign. — Ubben

Highlight of the game

Required reading

(Photo: Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)

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