The Florida defense was supposed to be too young and too weak to handle No. 2 Tennessee tonight, but instead the unit that includes seven sophomores bailed out an offense that was alternately explosive and blundering to preserve a 23-21 win in front of an ear-splitting crowd of 85,707. The victory, which avenged the Gators' overtime loss to Tennessee last year, likely will boost No. 4 Florida's ranking and put a serious dash in the Volunteers' hopes of repeating as national champions.
"I'm just really proud the way our defense played tonight, because we had turnovers that set up two of their three touchdowns," Florida Coach Steve Spurrier said. "This was a big game and our guys were ready to play."
Tennessee (1-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) has not won at Florida Field since 1971, but the preservation of the streak had less to do with the raucous atmosphere of the stadium--affectionately known as The Swamp--and more to do with the young Gators' defensive corps. With five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and seven tackles, sophomore defensive end Alex Brown led the squad that stood its ground several times, most strikingly at its 42-yard line to halt a last-ditch drive from Tennessee with about two minutes remaining. With the end of the drive came the end of the Vols' 14-game winning streak.
After the game, Gators offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker was so impressed with the way the defense neutralized the Volunteers' quarterback that he walked into Florida's locker room and said: "Tee Martin? Does anyone know who Tee Martin is, because I don't know."
Florida defensive coordinator Jon Hoke was more gracious, noting that Brown "made big plays and was fun to watch. I don't know how many plays he made but I said 'good job' a whole bunch."
Brown made his presence felt from Tennessee's very first drive, when he drew a penalty for shoving an empty-handed Martin to the ground and sending the quarterback's helmet rolling toward the sideline. Martin appeared in some pain after the play, but Tennessee got some retribution a few possessions later when tailback Jamal Lewis finished off a nine-yard carry by running straight into the chest of Florida strong safety Marquand Manuel, knocking of his helmet.
With introductions out of the way, Florida scored the game's first points on a 23-yard field goal midway through the first quarter. The Volunteers took the lead in the second quarter after Andre Lott recovered Darrell Jackson's fumble, with Martin scoring on a fourth-down bootleg.
Afterward, he jumped up and down, pumping his fist at the suddenly silent crowd, but the celebration turned out to be relatively short-lived.
Taking a path that has won them 30 straight games in this stadium, the Gators abandoned their running game and began mixing short and mid-length air strikes, shoving Tennessee farther and farther down the field. Before the Volunteers seemed to realize what was happening, the Gators (3-0, 1-0) overcame some costly penalties to race to a 16-7 advantage by halftime. By that point, quarterback Doug Johnson had thrown for 244 yards while Martin had 60.
Not much changed at the start of the second half, when Florida scored a quick touchdown to push its advantage to 23-7, although by the end of the third quarter the Volunteers had begun to work their way back into the game, capitalizing on Florida turnovers.
With about five minutes remaining, Tennessee pulled to 23-21 on Lewis's touchdown run, and the Volunteers looked ready to score again after Deon Grant intercepted Johnson on the Gators' next drive. But by that time, the Florida defense was prepared, and Tennessee stalled at midfield.
With two minutes remaining in the game, the Gators took over at their 42-yard line and never relinquished the ball.
"We didn't run the ball particularly well, we didn't pass particularly well, and plus when you have that many penalties, you're just not going to win," Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer said. "You've got to give Florida a great amount of credit. They played really big."