Trailing by only three at halftime, Tennessee was outscored 21-0 in the second half, falling to No. 11 Florida, 38-14, in its Southeastern Conference opener at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday evening.
Hendon Hooker completed 13-of-23 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns, while a balanced rushing attack of Jabari Small, Tiyon Evans and Hooker ran for 148 yards. The Vols (2-2, 0-1 SEC) never turned the ball over and forced their first fumble of the season late in the second quarter, but it was not enough to overcome the Florida offensive attack.
After conceding a touchdown on the Gators’ first drive, Hooker and Small ripped off back-to-back rushes of 15 and 16 yards, respectively, before Hooker connected with Evans on a slip screen for a 47-yard score with 7:05 left in the first quarter.
The Volunteer defense held the Gators (3-1, 1-1) to a field goal after the Florida offense drove into the red zone. Tennessee’s defense then forced a 3-and-out giving the Vols the ball at the 11. Four plays later, Tennessee finally connected on the elusive deep pass as Hooker found senior JaVonta Payton on a go-route on the left side for a 75-yard touchdown to go ahead 14-10 early in the second quarter. It was the longest scoring play for UT since a 94-yard touchdown run by Eric Gray vs. Vanderbilt on Nov. 30, 2019, and the longest pass play since Oct. 30, 2015.
A low snap resulted in a punt that gave the Gators the ball on their own 41. Five plays later, Nay’Quan Wright broke open a 23-yard rush that regained the lead for Florida in the second quarter. After a Tennessee 3-and-out, the Gators looked to extend their lead going into halftime with the ball already in Vol territory. Alontae Taylor instead ripped the ball from Gator receiver Jacob Copeland, and Aaron Beasley jumped on it with just over a minute remaining in the first half.
Tennessee’s high-octane offense did what it does best, moving the ball 55 yards in a minute of game time, but Chase McGrath’s 47-yard field goal sailed right of the uprights as time expired. The Vols trekked into the locker room, trailing 17-14.
Florida had only two drives in the third quarter, but the Gators capitalized on both of them, scoring a 13-yard double-pass on the first drive and a nine-yard connection from Emory Jones to Rick Wells. Sandwiched between the touchdowns was Tennessee’s longest duration possession in the first four games under Josh Heupel, totaling 6:07. Its previous high was 3:57 in the season opener against Bowling Green.
Defenses stood their ground in the fourth quarter as Florida scored the lone points of the period with 1:39 remaining in the contest. Joe Milton III entered the game at quarterback for the final two drives and completed two passes for 54 yards.
Florida outgained the Vols 505-423.
Trevon Flowers led all tacklers with a career-best 15 on the night. Flowers’ 15 tackles were the most in a game for Tennessee since Daniel Bituli had 19 in a 17-13 win over Kentucky on Nov. 9, 2019.
The Vols return to road action next Saturday at Missouri. Kickoff is scheduled for noon ET on SEC Network.