The fifth-ranked Gator football team improved to 3-0 after defeating conference rival Tennessee 59-20 in front of 90,707 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in the conference opener for both teams.
Quarterback Tim Tebow (St. Augustine, Fla.) finished 14 for 19 with 299 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 61 yards on eight carries and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Percy Harvin (Virgina Beach, Va.) led the Gators in both rushing and receiving with 9 carries for 75 yards and one touchdown and four receptions for 120 yards.
The victory marked the first time in school history that the Orange and Blue have opened the season scoring 45 points or more in its first three games. It is also the first time the Gators have scored 38 or more points in five consecutive games since accomplishing this feat in 1986.
The Orange and Blue were the first to strike. After a three and out possession by the Volunteers, sophomore Brandon James (St. Augustine, Fla.) tacked on a quick six with an 83-yard punt return. The return was the fifth-longest in school history, matching George Grandy’s 83-yard run against Tulane in 1966. Senior kicker Joey Ijjas (Clearwater, Fla.) added an extra point to give the Gators a 7-0 lead 1:57 into the game.
Tennessee answered quickly with a 73-yard kickoff return by LaMarcus Coker but fell short of a touchdown when sophomore cornerback Markihe Anderson (Fort Myers, Fla.) intercepted Erik Ainge’s pass, giving Anderson his first career interception and the Gators control of the ball on their own nine-yard line.
After two scoreless possessions for the Gators and one for the Volunteers, Tennessee broke into the scoring column with 1:45 remaining in the first quarter when freshman Daniel Lincoln converted on a 28-yard field goal narrowing the deficit to 7-3. The drive spanned 38 yards in 8 plays.
Three plays and 1:12 later, the Gators extended their lead, 14-3, following a 30-yard touchdown reception by sophomore wide receiver Riley Cooper (Clearwater, Fla.). The Gators utilized four of their offensive threats on the drive, beginning with a 31-yard kickoff return by James, a 10-yard run by Harvin and a 25-yard reception by junior tight end Cornelius Ingram (Hawthorne, Fla.).
The Vols countered with 9:55 to go in the second quarter with a 22-yard field goal by Lincoln to narrow the Gators’ lead to 14-6. Earlier in the drive, Ainge converted on a fourth down and three to go with an 11-yard pass to Lucas Taylor from the Gators’ 29 yard line.
Tebow and the Gator offense showcased their ability to run the ball on its fourth possession of the game. Seven of the nine plays in the possession were carries and Tebow rushed for 39 of the 58 yards of the drive, including a seven-yard touchdown carry to give Florida a 21-6 advantage.
With 1:30 remaining until the break, Tebow found Ingram in the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown reception, his second of the season. The score, which gave Florida a 28-6 lead, concluded a 75-yard, five-play scoring drive.
Tennessee refused to give in to the aggressive Gator defense led by junior defensive end Derrick Harvey (Greenbelt, Md.), scoring on a 15-yard touchdown reception by tight end Chris Brown. The touchdown was the first of the game for Tennessee and came with just 25 second left in the half.
Tennessee defensive back Eric Berry returned a Tebow interception for 96 yards, the third longest return in school history, to cut the Gator lead to 28-20. The interception was the first in 79 straight attempts by Tebow and is only the second of his career (first was versus Central Florida on Sept. 9, 2006).
The Gators would proceed to close the game out with 31 unanswered points.
Sophomore linebacker Dustin Doe (Jasper, Fla.) scored the first defensive touchdown of the year after recovering a fumble and returning it 18 yards to expand the Gator lead 35-20 with 5:18 remaining in the third.
The duo of Tebow and Harvin seemed too much for the Tennessee defense to control. Tebow began the drive at the Gators’ own one yard line and instantly completed a 49-yard pass to Harvin. The drive came full circle when Tebow handed off to Harvin, who ran 19 yards for a Gator touchdown, bringing the score to 42-27.
The quarterback-receiver tandem struck again after the Gators took over on downs from their own 47 yard line. Following a 48-yard reception from Harvin, Tebow took the reigns and rushed for a 5-yard score. The drive, lasting 40 seconds, brought the Gators to a 49-20 advantage with 11:25 remaining in the game.
Proving that Harvin isn’t the only receiver he can connect with, Tebow threw deep to wide receiver Louis Murphy (St. Petersburg, Fla.) for 44 yards, a career high reception, on the Gators’ next possession. After a 13-yard run by James and a five-yard carry by running back Kestahn Moore (Arlington, Texas), the Gators settled for three with a 25-yard field goal by Ijjas. Florida maintained a 52-20 lead with 4:55 remaining.
Freshman linebacker Jerimy Finch (Indianapolis, Ind.) made his first career interception with 2:43 left in the game giving the Gators control on the Vols’ 29 yard line. Freshman quarterback Cameron Newton (College Park, Ga.) took the helm for the Gators and scored his first career rushing touchdown with a four-yard carry to seal the Gators’ victory, 59-20.
The Gators will return to action next Saturday, Sept. 22, when they travel to Oxford to a 12:30 p.m. meeting at Southeastern Conference opponent Ole Miss. The game will be carried live by Lincoln Financial Sports.