No. 12 Tennessee 24, No. 17 Florida 10
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—With no time left and nothing to lose, Casey Clausen stepped up in the pocket and let the ball fly—a what-the-heck shot into the end zone to close out the first half.
The result: A lucky go-ahead touchdown for No. 12 Tennessee, and the turning point of a 24-10 victory over No. 17 Florida, which tried but failed to beat the Vols at their own game Saturday.
“That’s one of those plays you work on all the time,” said James Banks, who caught the ricocheting 48-yarder. “You never think you’re going to run it, or that it’s going to work.”
This time, though, it did.
Clausen also hit on the only other long ball he threw—a 57-yard beauty to Bret Smith in the third quarter. That one set up the first of two touchdown runs by Jabari Davis, as the Volunteers (3-0) won their Southeastern Conference opener and set themselves up as early front-runners in the SEC East.
Clausen and the Vols had some help with this one.
Coach Ron Zook of Florida (2-2, 0-1) pulled this game plan out of the stone ages—or maybe out of the Tennessee playbook—in an attempt to run the ball, play it close to the vest and eke out a win.
It was the style Gators fans used to ridicule when it was Vols coach Phillip Fulmer getting flummoxed by Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun. But that was back in the day. This time, Zook got outcoached, maybe simply because, in his 12 years as head coach at Tennessee, Fulmer has become a master at the running and field-position game.
“Things change in this game,” Fulmer said. “If I had three running backs like Florida does, I’d play that way, too.”
The game turned late in the first half. Behind Ciatrick Fason, DeShawn Wynn and Ran Carthon, the Gators were grinding on the ground, nursing a 3-0 lead. They took over at their 20 and Zook called a running play on first down, a sign the Gators might be happy to take the lead into the locker room.
But a 6-yard gain led Zook to call a timeout with 40 seconds left. Ingle Martin followed with an incompletion, and on third down, Carthon ran for no gain.
Fulmer called timeout to force a punt, and on the last play of the short drive, Clausen winged it; the ball hit off a couple Gators and into the hands of Banks, and Tennessee had an unexpected 7-3 lead at halftime.
“Everyone did their job, except for the ball,” Gators safety Daryl Dixon said.
The rest of Tennessee’s second straight win in The Swamp—its 34-32 win here late in the 2001 season knocked Florida out of the national-title chase— was somewhat predictable.
Clausen took advantage of a busted coverage and hit Smith to set up a 1-yard run by Davis for a two-touchdown lead late in the third.
Martin led a 77-yard drive to pull it back to seven, but then the Vols did what good teams that play their style do: They marched 76 yards in 11 plays against a physically drained defense. Subbing for Cedric Houston, who left with bruised ribs, Davis ran for 45 of his 78 total yards on that drive, including the 9-yard TD that sent many fans out of the stadium.
“We came out in the second half and just physically wore them down,” Clausen said.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee marching band wore itself out playing “Rocky Top.” Gators offensive lineman Max Starks vowed Clausen would not get a chance to direct the band during postgame, as he did in 2001, when the Vols ended a 30-year winless streak at The Swamp. But Clausen was up on the ladder again— directing, pumping his fist and doing the Gator chomp, while the band played on.
Starks was not available for interviews after the game.
“One thing I’ve been saying about this team is, `Don’t doubt us,”’ he said.
The senior finished 12-for-23 for 235 yards and improved to 11-0 as a starter on the road.
Martin went 16-for-32 for 205 yards. Sharing time with Chris Leak, Martin rarely threw downfield, opting instead for the screens and dump-offs that offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher’s passing attack is built around. Late in the game, he threw out of desperation and padded the numbers.
But for the most part, the Gators wanted to run, and they did it without much success. Wynn finished with 35 yards and Carthon had 33. At some points, they and their coach got booed by a crowd used to seeing more entertaining football.
“Coach Spurrier was a genius as an offensive coordinator,” said Gators receiver Kelvin Kight (7 catches, 77 yards). “We still have a great one in Coach Zaunbrecher. We just didn’t make the plays today.”
In all, Florida looked nothing like the team that nearly beat Miami in the 38-33 loss two weeks ago. Nor did Tennessee look like the team that allowed 382 yards and struggled with Marhsall in a 34-24 win, also two weeks back.
“This is just another step in the right direction,” Fulmer said.