Rocky topped: Five takeaways as No. 22 Florida Gators lose to the No. 12 Tennessee Vols

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Florida football found itself at the wrong end of a Rocky Top Tussle on Saturday, as the No. 22 Gators made a furious late comeback before falling 38-33 to the No. 12 Tennessee Volunteers before a sellout crowd of 101,000 at Neyland Stadium,

Florida recovered an onside kick with 16 seconds remaining down 38-33, but quarterback Anthony Richardson was pressured on the final play of the game from the Tennessee 39-yard line and had his last gasp pass attempt toward the end zone intercepted.

The Gators (2-2, 0-2 SEC) are off to an 0-2 league start for the first time since 1986 and have dropped six straight conference games dating back to the 2021 season. Florida's last conference win came Oct. 9, 2021 against Vanderbilt. 

"We need to execute a little bit better, and we need to coach a little bit better, in particular myself today," Florida coach Billy Napier said. "I think I can do better for our team, for our players. But I do think although we lost the game, I think we grew up a little bit today, in my opinion. Just relative to actually flipping the switch and competing."

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Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) won for just the second time in the last 18 meetings between the SEC rivals. 

Here are five takeaways from the game: 

Quarterback Anthony Richardson has career passing day

Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson (15) runs the ball against the Tennessee Volunteers during the first quarter at Neyland Stadium.

After two straight shaky outings, Richardson regained his confidence throwing the ball on Saturday in a high-stakes game against the Vols. He threw for a career-high 453 yards, becoming the sixth quarterback in UF history to throw for more than 400 yards in an SEC game.

"We prepared all week to take some shots," Richardson said. "The receivers and I were working on that all week, just building chemistry and confidence. And we tried to showcase that tonight."

Richardson also threw his first TD passes of the season —  a 44-yard catch and run by tight end Keon Zipperer and a 3-yard TD catch by wide receiver Ricky Pearsall — while adding two rushing TDs. Richardson connected on strikes downfield throughout the game, including a 38-yard pass to Pearsall and a 39-yard pass to Justin Shorter on a 4th-and-3 play, and another 39-yard pass to Shorter later in the fourth quarter.

"It feels good just to have fun out there and play football," Richardson said. "Just being out there with my brothers, it's fun. It's a blessing, and I just gotta take advantage of every opportunity I get. We tried to do that tonight. But overall, it's pretty fun just having time to play football with them."

Richardson's lone costly mistake came early in the fourth quarter, though, when he lost a fumble in the red zone with Florida trailing 31-21, ending any chance of a Gator comeback. 

Florida had entered Saturday last in the SEC in passing offense with Richardson throwing for under 200 yards in each of his first three games.

Shorter had 7 catches for 155 yards and Pearsall had 5 catches for 103 yards and a TD.

"It looks good to just go out there and execute," Pearsall said. "That’s what we’ve been trying to do but we’ve just got to get out, get back on the same page and keep working on those little details.”

Tight ends more involved in passing game

Napier called UF's tight ends "a work in progress" earlier this week on the SEC teleconference. Florida's tight ends delivered on Saturday against the Vols.

Zipperer scored on a 44-yard TD catch and a fourth-down conversion, with Dante Zanders adding a catch on a fourth-down conversion. Overall, UF's tight ends had five catches for 80 yards and 1 TD.

Ventrell MIller makes impact in his return

Ventrell Miller, a game-time decision, made an impact in his return until re-injuring his foot in the third quarter. He forced a fumble in the red zone in Tennessee's opening drive, which teammate Tre'Vez Johnson recovered. Then, in the second quarter, Miller recovered a fumble on a fourth down play off an Amari Burney strip sack. Miller had 5 tackles and 2 quarterback hurries before going down when he raced Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker down on a 44-yard scramble. He returned in the fourth quarter and made one more tackle to finish with 6 tackles on the day.

"Ventrell Miller, he’s a leader, he’s an example-setter, he’s a great communicator," Napier said. "He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around when it comes to just his ability to influence other people in a positive way. Consistency, right? Ventrell Miller, couldn’t be prouder of him.”

Defense remains inconsistent

Florida's defense again showed its warts, failing to come up with stops in big spots throughout the game. Coverage busts — one by safety Trey Dean and one by Burney — led to two Tennessee touchdowns.

No one accounted for Hooker's ability to scramble, as he rushed for 112 yards and 1 TD.

"He’s just a good player and I think one of the things that really makes him unique is he has a special ability to rush the ball and his ability to rush and escape," Napier said. "We had him dead to right a bunch tonight and the guy’s a good player. I think we had our opportunities.”

A big momentum turn came late in the second quarter when, with Florida up 14-10, the Gators allowed the Vols to march on a 99-yard TD drive late in the second quarter to take a 17-14 lead into halftime. A 43-yard diving catch by Tennessee receiver Ramel Keyton aided the drive, but Florida was unable to come up with big third down stops throughout the drive.

With the Vols down top receiver Cedric Tillman Jr., Florida's defense could have made a better showing. The Vols rolled up 576 yards of total offense.

“When we evaluate the tape, like I mentioned earlier, there’s going to be things we can do better in all three areas of our team — players, coaches, in-game decision-making, fundamentals, communication," Napier said. "That’s where we’re at. That’s exactly where we’re at as a football team. We need more repetitions and we need to stay the course. I’m confident in our process and I’m confident in this group and their attitude toward the work - and I know they’ll respond the right way.”

An up and down day for Billy Napier

Florida coach Billy Napier during the first half against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium.

Napier gambled throughout most of the game and it paid off, as Florida converted on 5 of its 6 fourth down opportunities. The one time it failed, on a 4th-and-2 from Tennessee's 21-yard line in Florida's opening drive, the Gators could have settled for points and taken an early 3-0 lead. But Napier remained consistent in staying aggressive throughout the game.

"We left some points out there a little bit today," Napier said. "But it also pay dividends for us today. We knew we were going to have to score. I think history is the best indicator of the future. I think that group had scored 30 points, I don’t know eight or nine games in a row or something like that."

Late in the third quarter, Napier was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty when he was livid after officials took a long time whether to review a goal line play in which Florida appeared to have a stop to prevent a Vols touchdown. Napier had to be held back by four of his assistant coaches as he charged off the sidelines toward officials. The penalty gave Tennessee a first down instead of a third down after the review showed the Vols were stopped short of the goal line.

On the next play, Tennessee running back Jabari Small scored on a one-yard TD run, giving the Vols a 31-21 lead.

In the fourth quarter, Napier went for two-point conversions twice, with the Gators failing to convert in both instances. Had Napier gone for extra points twice in those instances, the Gators could have been down 38-35 after recovering an onsides kick with 17 seconds left, needing just a field goal to force overtime.

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