KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—After the worst miss of his career, James Wilhoit made the biggest kick of his life.
He kicked a 50-yard field goal with 6 seconds to go to lift No. 13 Tennessee to a 30-28 victory over 11th-ranked Florida on Saturday night. Wilhoit redeemed himself after missing the first extra-point kick of his career less than four minutes earlier that would have tied the game.
Tennessee was trailing 28-21 in the fourth quarter, when freshman Erik Ainge completed a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jayson Swain with 4:17 left. But Wilhoit, a sophomore who had made 50 PATs straight, was wide right on the kick.
“I was asked when I was being recruited here if I had a chance to win the game if I’d want it to be at home or away. Would it be in The Swamp?” Wilhoit said. “And I said, ‘No way.’ I’d rather it be at home so we could rush the field.”
That’s what the Vols did to celebrate a stunning ending to one of the games that annually goes a long way toward determining the winner of the Southeastern Conference’s East division.
After the miss, all Florida had to do was run out the clock, but the Gators (1-1, 0-1) had to punt with 55 seconds left.
It was enough time for the Vols (2-0, 1-0) to rally for their first win over Florida at home since 1998, the year they won the national championship. Tennessee had beaten the Gators the last two times in Gainesville, and won back-to-back games over Florida for the first time since 1970-71.
“This was certainly a character fight, but the team’s attitude is just so good,” said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who is 5-8 against Florida. “I knew we could come through it with a win.”
Ainge completed passes of 21 and 7 yards to Chris Hannon to set up the field goal. After Wilhoit kicked it straight down the middle, the Tennessee bench erupted with players and coaches streaming onto the field. The Vols were flagged for a celebration penalty, but they didn’t care.
“Any time you beat your rival, it’s a great feeling,” Swain said. “We know the past, the history and the rivalry.”
The loss overshadowed a fine performance by Florida’s Chris Leak, who was making his first appearance at Neyland Stadium. A record crowd of 109,061 tried to rattle him and ended up staying after the game to sing along to the umpteenth playing of Rocky Top.
Leak, the younger brother of the Vols’ C.J. Leak, rebounded from an interception in the first quarter to finish 22-for-31 for 286 yards and three touchdowns.
During his recruitment, Chris Leak soured on the Vols and criticized Fulmer for the way he treated his older brother, who began his career as a promising quarterback but is now a reserve.
“After Tennessee tied it up at 21, he came out there and said, ‘This is our drive,’ and we quickly went down and scored,” Florida tailback Ciatrick Fason said of Leak. “He handled the offense so well, and for his age he stepped up his game another level.”
Leak hooked up with Chad Jackson for an 81-yard touchdown that put the Gators ahead 28-21 with 7:43 left.
“I’m still confident, especially after what we’ve been through,” Florida coach Ron Zook said. “It’s been a while since a team was undefeated in the (SEC) East.”
Tennessee continued its rotation of freshmen quarterbacks and started Brent Schaeffer, though it was Ainge who was most effective.
After he led a scoring drive that tied it at 21, he played the rest of the way.
“Erik was just doing a better job at the time,” Fulmer said. “But Schaeffer certainly gives you a lot of things and he has nothing to hang his head about.”
Ainge completed 16 of 24 passes for 192 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Schaeffer was 3-of-4 for 40 yards and ran seven times for 38 yards.