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No. 11 Gators going for ninth consecutive win at home over Tennessee

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
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Florida end Zachary Carter and his defensive teammates plan to make life miserable for the Vols quarterback, whomever that may be.

No. 11 Florida turns the page on its narrow loss to Alabama with tonight’s rivalry game against Tennessee. 

The Gators, despite the result last week, looked like a playoff contender with their performance against the top-ranked Tide. UF coach Dan Mullen wants to see his team elevate their play even more vs. the Vols. 

“We’re gonna have to turn it up a big notch for Saturday,” Mullen said. “This team has high expectations for themselves. I think with our players, obviously, you wanted to win that game, and it would put you in an even better position than we're in now.

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“I imagine we still have a lot of control over how this season’s gonna be played out. And so we have to regather our focus, our mindset, gotta get physically and mentally prepared to go play a really good football team here on Saturday.” 

Florida (2-1, 0-1 SEC) has dominated the rivalry with Tennessee since the Urban Meyer era, winning 15 of the last 16 matchups and eight consecutive games at home. The Vols (2-1) are on their third coach since last beating UF in 2016, but Mullen has been impressed with them this season under first-year skipper Josh Heupel. 

Looking at Vols

“Boy, defensively they’re certainly playing hard,” Mullen said. “They’re very physical up front, play really fast, get off the ball on the defensive front. Guys running to the ball. The energy they are playing with defensively. You look at two of the games, they held the opponent to under six points and guys flying around. 

“And then offensively, they do a good job of getting the ball to playmakers in space, of spreading you out and playing with tempo. You know, a lot of different guys with catches on the team. They are going to spread it to a lot of different people. It’s going to be a big challenge for us to make sure we are playing at an extremely high level.”

Heupel was hired in late January to replace Jeremy Pruitt, who was fired earlier that month for NCAA recruiting violations. Heupel spent the past three seasons at UCF, posting a 28-8 record and producing the nation’s No. 2 offense in 2020 and 2019.

He inherited a Tennessee program that ranked 122nd nationally in total offense last year. 

Florida's Dameon Pierce (27) and the Gators' running attack plan to keep it rolling Saturday against Tennessee.

“Everyone in our program is excited about the challenge of going down to Gainesville and playing a really good Florida football team,” Heupel said. “Obviously, everyone saw the way they competed last week. They’re down early in that football game a week ago and they have competitive composure to continue to compete and chip away at it.”

Gators on the run

UF eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the year with 245 vs. the Tide, marking the program’s highest rushing total through three games of a season (1,007) since at least 1965. After leading the country in passing last year with Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask, the Gators now boast the nation's second-best rushing offense this fall with dual-threat quarterbacks Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson. 

“Whatever we have to do to win the game and utilize our personnel, that’s what we’re going to do,” said John Hevesy, Florida’s offensive line coach and running game coordinator. “If we have to throw it Saturday 75 times to win a game, we’re going to throw the ball 75 times a game. It’s going to be what’s working in the game, what we have in the plan to use the guys and utilize what they can do to be successful. It’s always going to be that way. It’s never going to change.”

Jones is coming off a confidence-building performance against Alabama, and Mullen thinks Richardson should be “ready to go” Saturday after sitting out last week with a hamstring injury. The Gators’ ground game, led by Richardson (275 yards) and Jones (247), will be tested by Tennessee. 

The Vols rank No. 5 nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 54.3 rush yards per game.

“A lot of positives with what we’ve done in the run game,” Heupel said. “There’s been times where the quarterback has escaped the pocket and made plays with his feet. That’s a big part of the ball game in this one. Most of their quarterbacks have the ability to use their feet and be a real threat out in space. 

“They extend plays and can throw it down the field, but they also run like running backs and have the ability to make you miss or run through a tackle. Tackling will be a big part of it, keeping them inside the pocket and bottling them up will be a big part of it too.”

Tackling was also a point of emphasis this week for the Gators after they missed touchdown-saving tackles inside the 10-yard line on Alabama’s first and third score. Cornerback Kaiir Elam put the onus on himself and the rest of UF’s secondary to make more stops against the Vols. 

Their up-tempo offense under Heupel puts a premium on tackling in space. 

“They go fast and they like to throw the ball deep a lot, so I feel like we mentally need to be prepared for that and just make sure we open-field tackle,” Elam said. “That’s another thing we can improve on from last weekend, just executing Coach (Todd) Grantham’s play call. But I feel like we should. I expect to dominate that game.”

In addition to preparing for Heupel’s scheme in practice, the Gators also had to game plan for two quarterbacks. Michigan transfer Joe Milton III started the season opener against Bowling Green, but was injured in the second game and replaced by Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker. 

Hooker threw a late interception in the loss to Pittsburgh, but accounted for 263 yards of offense (199 passing) and four touchdowns last Saturday against Tennessee Tech, a 56-0 shutout. Florida must be ready for both signal callers, as well as Heupel’s hurry-up attack.

“They spread you out, play it and snap the ball as fast as you can to get up there,” Mullen said. “It’s hard sometimes to practice the tempo at which they’re going. What we can’t do is be shocked by the speed of that once the game starts. 

“How fast they’re going to snap the ball and how fast they’re going to get up there and run plays, that’s how fast we have to get the call, get lined up and be ready to go execute.”

Today

Who: Tennessee (2-1) vs. No. 11 Florida (2-1, 0-1 SEC)

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

TV: ESPN

Radio: AM-850, 103.7-FM

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