Gators aim to extend streak over Vols to 8
Published: Friday, September 14, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 6:30 p.m.
GAINESVILLE — Senior Florida defensive lineman Omar Hunter was surprised when told the Gators have won their last seven games against Tennessee.
“It's seven games? I didn't know that,” Hunter said.
The last time Tennessee beat Florida, Ron Zook was in his final season as UF coach, “Shrek 2” was a hit at the box office and gas was $2.10 per gallon. It was 2004 and the Vols won 30-28 when James Wilhoit booted a 50-yard field goal with six seconds remaining through the clear, Tennessee night sky.
The big kick capped a 16-point Tennessee fourth quarter and sent the crowd of 109,000 at Neyland Stadium into a frenzy. Former Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge led the comeback by throwing a pair of touchdown passes.
“If we had known that was the last time we were going to beat Florida in seven years, we would have celebrated harder that night,” Ainge said.
Florida's seven wins in a row against the Vols since have included some close calls (a 21-20 win in Knoxville in 2006) and blowouts (a 59-20 win at The Swamp in 2007). The average margin of victory during the streak has been 15.3 points, though five of the seven games have been decided by two TDs or less.
“When you get in these rival games, all of the talent is the same, everyone wants it,” Hunter said. “It just comes down to assignment football and who plays the best assignment football.”
Big plays also have helped. During the streak, Florida has scored three touchdowns of 50 yards or more, including an 83-yard catch and run by Chris Rainey last season. Tennessee has scored just one on a 96-yard Eric Berry interception return for a TD in 2007.
In last season's 33-23 win, Florida dominated the defensive line of scrimmage, holding Tennessee to minus-9 yards rushing.
“We haven't maybe been as focused as we needed to be in the games,” Tennessee senior offensive lineman Dallas Thomas said.
Said Ainge: “Streaks are funny. In 2006, we should have won it more than in 2004. We played a better game, but they had a freshman named Tim Tebow that we couldn't tackle. Even though we all knew, and everyone in the stadium knew he was going to run on 4th-and-1, we couldn't tackle him. If he's not playing, we win that game.”
Ainge also blamed himself in 2006 for not getting Tennessee into field goal range on its final drive. Florida clinched the game when Reggie Nelson intercepted an Ainge pass on 4th-and-16 from UF's 45-yard line.
“I tried to force a ball to (Tennessee receiver Robert) Meachem on third and fourth down,” Ainge said. “Had I thrown a checkdown, we would have gotten into field goal range and won the game. But those are how things go as a starting quarterback, when everybody on a team and a university and community is counting on you. It's the hard part about being a quarterback. You feel like you let everybody down.”
In Ainge's opinion, Tebow and current Tennessee coach Derek Dooley are the two main factors that have kept UF's winning streak over the Vols going.
“In 2007-09, you had arguably the best college player ever in Tim Tebow,” Ainge said. “You can say what you want about him as an NFL quarterback. But he was a dominant college player. (Phil) Fulmer left in 2009 and then you had Lane Kiffin, who didn't seem interested in sticking around very long.
“And then in 2010 and 2011, you had Derek Dooley learning how to be a college coach. And I think it took him being on the hottest of hot seats to say, ‘Hey, I'm just going to be myself,' not be Vince Dooley, not be Nick Saban. And so far, it's working.”
The Vols are off to a 2-0 start behind junior quarterback Tyler Bray, who is making big throws downfield. Bray is averaging 321.5 yards per game with six touchdowns and one interception. Oddsmakers have made Tennessee a 3-point favorite over the Gators on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
“Me being here five years, I think this is the best Tennessee team I've seen on film,” Hunter said. “They're a talented team, got a lot of talent at the wideout position, the running back and the quarterback.”
Tennessee coaches and players insist that they are not using the streak as any extra motivation this week.
“We don't even really talk about that,” Dooley said. “The last seven games, whatever, have no bearing on how we are going to play Saturday. We need our focus to be on play-to-play, not what happened historically.”
Added Thomas: “You prepare the same way. I try not to feed into that, because then you start to overthink things, and you might not play good.”
But Ainge, who hosts a simulcast show based in Knoxville for Tennessee Sports Radio, said the streak has been a topic of conversation among his callers in Vol Nation this week.
“The general vibe is this is the best Tennessee team we've had in the last three years and Florida is a little down, and if we don't get them now at home, when are we going to get them,” Ainge said. “They are still Florida. They still have top five and 10 recruiting classes coming in.”
A look at Florida's seven straight wins over Tennessee:
2011 — Florida 33, Tennessee 23: Chris Rainey finished with 108 yards rushing and 104 yards receiving, lifting the Gators to the win at The Swamp. Florida overcame 150 yards in penalties by holding Tennessee to minus-9 yards rushing.
2010 — Florida 31, Tennessee 17: Jeff Demps finished with 107 yards of total offense (73 yards rushing, 34 yards receiving) and Mike Gillislee rushed for two TDs, leading Florida to the win at Neyland Stadium.
2009 — Florida 23, Tennessee 13: In a game more remembered for the acrimony between Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin and Florida coach Urban Meyer, the heavily favored Gators did just enough to win at The Swamp. Florida struggled to stop Tennessee's run game in the first half, but won behind a strong effort from quarterback Tim Tebow (14-19 passing, 76 yards rushing, one TD) and three field goals from Caleb Sturgis.
2008 — Florida 30, Tennessee 6: Florida made a bevy of big plays in Phil Fulmer's final game coaching against the Gators. Brandon James returned a punt 78 yards for a TD. Florida's defense forced three turnovers, and the Gators got TD catches from wide receiver Percy Harvin and tight end Aaron Hernandez. By the start of the fourth quarter, most of the fans at Neyland Stadium headed for the exits.
2007 — Florida 59, Tennessee 20: The Gators won behind a dominant game from sophomore quarterback Tim Tebow, who finished with two passing TDs and two more rushing. Florida out-rushed Tennessee 255-37 in the rout at The Swamp. Brandon James returned a punt 83 yards for a TD.
2006 — Florida 21, Tennessee 20: The most painful of Tennessee's seven straight losses. Florida rallied from down 17-7 early in the third quarter to win the game at Neyland Stadium. Tim Tebow came up with a big fourth-down conversion in the second half, and Dallas Baker caught two TD passes in the second half. Baker's 21-yard TD catch from Chris Leak with 6:30 remaining was the go-ahead score.
2005 — Florida 16, Tennessee 7: The Gators won with defense in Urban Meyer's first conference game in the SEC. Andre Caldwell scored Florida's lone touchdown on an 18-yard reverse run, sending the crowd at The Swamp into a frenzy. Florida held Tennessee to just 3 of 13 on third-down conversions and got three field goals from walk-on kicker Chris Hetland.
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