KNOXVILLE – During its 2-0 start to the season, No. 23 Tennessee made a habit of scoring points in a flash.
Against No. 18 Florida on Saturday night, its fortunes changed just as quickly.
The Gators (3-0, 2-0 SEC) dealt the Vols a couple of body blows in the third quarter and pulled away to win their eighth consecutive game in the series, 37-20, in front of a sold-out Neyland Stadium.
Florida exploded for 24 unanswered points to close the game, and wound up with 555 yards of total offense and 336 yards rushing.
At halftime, the Gators had just 176 yards of offense and only 86 on the ground. Florida gained 227 yards of total offense in the third quarter, 170 of which came on the ground.
But after the Vols went 81 yards on their first possession of the second half, it was all Florida the rest of the way.
Trey Burton, who scored Florida’s only touchdown of the first half, started the deluge with an 80-yard touchdown run on a direct snap. Then after a Tyler Bray interception, the Gators ripped off a 45-yard run by Mike Gillislee and one play later quarterback Jeff Driskel found Jordan Reed in the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown and a 27-20 lead.
The haymaker was a 75-yard, catch-and-run touchdown pass to Frankie Hammond on third down that gave Florida a 34-20 lead with 9:55 remaining.
Tennessee failed to gain a yard of total offense in the fourth quarter and didn’t have a first down in the final 15 minutes.
Tennessee, which falls to 2-1 and 0-1 in the SEC heading into next week’s game against Akron (TV: CSS, 7:30 p.m.) in Knoxville, got off to a solid start and seemed in control at halftime.
Tennessee led 10-7 at the half, its first lead in the series after two quarters since 2006, when the Vols lost to Florida 21-20 in Neyland Stadium.
Florida scored on its second possession of the game when Burton took a direct snap 14 yards to give the Gators a 7-0 lead with 7:52 left in the first quarter.
They took possession on that drive after linebacker Lerentee McCray intercepted a Tyler Bray pass and returned it 25 yards into Tennessee territory.
Bray, who finished 22-of-44 for 257 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, got off to a shaky start. In addition to the first quarter pick, two other passes nearly wound up as turnovers.
Justin Hunter dislodged the ball from a Florida defender on the first, and the last, coming after McCray’s interception, was tipped and caught by UT’s Zach Rogers.
The offense came alive in the first quarter when Bray hit Hunter for a 42-yard gain to the Florida 18-yard line. He then caught Cordarrelle Patterson on a quick slant from the 2-yard line one play and a Gators penalty later to even the score with 3:02 left in the first quarter.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, Tennessee embarked on a 16-play, 77-yard drive that ended with a perfectly lofted touchdown pass from Bray to tight end Mychal Rivera.
The key play on that drive came on fourth-and-9 from the Gators’ 30, when Bray hit Patterson for a 12-yard gain. Officials initially said the Patterson fumbled on the play, giving the Gators possession, but overturned the ruling on review.
Florida and Tennessee each punted on their next two possessions, but the Gators strung together three plays of more than 15 yards on the final possession of the first half to make the score 14-10.
Tennessee’s defense stuffed the Gators three straight plays, starting with a first-and-goal from 1-yard line before forcing a field goal as time expired.