GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Billy Napier navigated a sea of family, friends and fans waiting to congratulate him on his most significant victory as Florida’s head coach. He shook hands, doled out hugs and even posed for pictures.
He was in no hurry to get through the adulation, either.
“We’ll celebrate tonight, I promise you,” Napier said.
The victory was the first in a rivalry for Napier, who last year became the first coach in school history to lose to Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State in the same season. Getting that initial one under his belt should quell outside noise about Napier’s long-term viability with the Gators (2-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference).
“It validates your plan, what you’re selling to a degree,” Napier said. “That’s what you want as a leader. … That’s a lot more fun.”
For the Volunteers, the 550-mile trip from Knoxville ended much like all the others over the last two decades: in heartache. Tennessee last won at the Swamp in 2003. The skid started with Phillip Fulmer and spans the Tennessee coaching tenures of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt and now Josh Heupel.
Tennessee (2-1, 0-1) looked like it had as good a chance as any to end its road drought in the series — the Vols were 6 1/2-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook — but quarterback Joe Milton and his offensive line seemed lost at times just trying to get plays started.
The Vols, who now have dropped 17 of 19 in the series, were flagged for five false starts and had to burn two timeouts early in the second half to avoid delay-of-game penalties.
“The pre-snap penalties killed us,” Heupel said.
The crowd noise may have even affected the refs, who seemingly erred by allowing Florida to substitute before Tennessee’s fourth-and-1 play in the third quarter. Scooby Williams stuffed Jaylen Wright in the backfield to cause a turnover on downs.
“The official kicked or moved the ball and re-spotted it,” Heupel said. “They allowed the substitution. Been a long time since I’ve seen an official kick a ball.”
The Vols failed again on fourth down on their next drive, with Milton throwing incomplete to end it. Tennessee finished the night 0 for 3 on fourth down.
Graham Mertz and Florida were much more comfortable in front of 90,751, the 12th-largest crowd at Florida Field.
“Man, it got loud,” Mertz said. “I was on the sideline and I couldn’t hear my coach (standing) in front of me. It got rocking. … They truly affected the game.”
Mertz completed 19 of 24 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. He also juked a defender on a third-down play and later ran for a score. Etienne broke a 62-yard TD scamper in the first quarter. Johnson had a short scoring run and an 18-yard TD reception that made it 26-7 in the second.
“There were a lot of mistakes on our end,” Vols linebacker Aaron Beasley said. “We were undisciplined on our part. We misfit a lot of things.”
A key error down the stretch for Tennessee: Leading 29-16, Florida lined up to go for it on fourth and 1 at its own 34. But Kurott Garland jumped offsides, handing the Gators a first down and prompting Napier to raise both arms in celebration.
Two things went wrong for Florida: freshman receiver Tre Wilson, who caught Mertz’s first six passes, bruised his collarbone and was on the sideline in sling in the second half, and kicker Adam Mihalek was way short on a 46-yard field goal early and had an extra point blocked.
Napier benched Mihalek in favor or Trey Smack, who hit both extra points and drilled a 26-yard field goal to give Florida a little cushion.
The game ended with a scuffle and penalty flags on both teams. Mertz took a knee and then took exception to defensive lineman Omari Thomas running into him. Benches cleared, and Tennessee defensive back Kamal Hadden and Florida guard Micah Mazzccua squared off like boxers. Mazzccua clearly threw a punch. Florida right tackle Damieon George was initially flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, and Thomas for targeting. But neither flag was enforced.
“That was just the weirdest ending to a game I’ve ever had,” Mertz said. “I guess that’s Florida-Tennesse.”
Heupel and Napier had an icy handshake at midfield before the teams had to return to the field for one final play.
“Do we want to be composed in that situation and all situations? Absolutely,” Heupel said. “Their guy is dancing, and you have to go tackle him.”
Tennessee: The Volunteers outgained Florida 393-349 in yards, but Milton threw an interception in the first half — his first in 250 pass attempts at Tennessee — and never found a rhythm. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 287 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. He also recovered his own fumble.
Florida: The Gators have rebounded nicely from an error-filled opener at then-No. 14 Utah. They manhandled McNeese last week and beat Tennessee to give themselves a chance in the Eastern Division.