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By Dory LeBlanc
College football is filled with rivalries, but after winning eight straight games against Tennessee, Gator Nation may have felt the luster dull off of the annual Gators-Vols game. The hiring of Butch Jones was thought to reignite the fire between the two schools, unfortunately, it was same-old, same-old for the Vols, who extended their losing streak to nine Saturday.
It was a wild first half in Gainesville, highlighted by four Tennessee turnovers, and three botched snaps by Florida and an injured quarterback.
Jeff Driskel was knocked out of the contest in the first quarter after taking a sack as he threw a pick-six to Devaun Swafford, which put the Volunteers on the board 7-0 and QB Tyler Murphy in the game.
The Florida offense sputtered through much of the first half until Murphy got into a rhythm in the passing game and used his legs to pick up first downs and escape two sacks. The defense, which received little rest on the sidelines put the Gators in position to grab the lead after forcing two fumbles and grabbing two interceptions off freshman QB Nathan Peterman, who got his first collegiate start this afternoon.
Led by Gators DE Daunte Fowler, who forced both fumbles and picked up a sack, the defense held Tennessee to 32 yards in the first half; 26 on the ground and six through the air.
After being down 7-3, Murphy hit Solomon Patton with a short pass that turned into a 52-yard touchdown and extended their lead just before the half after JuCo transfer Darious Cummings intercepted Peterman, and RB Mack Brown ran it in to take a 17-7 lead heading into halftime.
Despite the first half offensive woes for Florida, they outgained UT in yardage 203-32 with 103 passing and 97 rushing yards.
Tennessee started the second half from their 20-yard line and with Justin Worley, who started the fiorst three games of the season for the Vols, under center.
Worley marched the Volunteers downfield and a 44-yard field goal by Michael Palardy made it 17-10 with just under three minutes off the clock in the third quarter.
The Murphy-led Gators returned the favor by solid playcalling, which mixed up the running and passing games, and execution; extending their lead to 24-10 after Matt Jones' rushing TD capped off a 79-yard drive.
Despite the defense allowing Tennessee to move the ball in the third quarter, they held the Vols to the one field goal, and forced a punt - which was batted out of bounds by LB Darrin Kitchens and set the Gators back 10 yards to start the drive,
Continuing with the balanced offensive attack, Florida drove 84 yards and Murphy picked up his first collegiate TD on a seven-yard run to start the fourth quarter and put Florida up 31-10.
However, on the ensuing Tennesse possession, CB Brian Poole was ejected for targeting after leading with his helmet on a hit, leaving a usually deep Florida secondary without Marcus Roberson (did not start - knee), Louchiez Purifoy (injured during the game), and Poole to finish the game.
The Volunteers took advantage of the 15-yard penalty and picked up two first downs of their own to pull within two TDs after Worley hit Alton Howard with a 19-yard pass in the end zone.
After eating up 3:31 off the clock, the Vols defense forced Florida to go three-and-out, but two plays later, Jabari Gorman grabbed an interception on the sidelines, giving the offense a mulligan. Murphy couldn't capitalize on the turnover as Austin Hardin shanked a 40-yard FG attempt and the Vols took over from their own 24.
Worley led Tennessee 53 yards down the field, but turned the ball over on downs after taking shots at the end zone instead of trying to pick up a first down as the clock was winding down. Florida tried to eat up more time off the clock, but ended up punting it away, giving the Volunteers a chance to add to the scoreboard with 26 seconds remaining.
The attempt failed and the game ended with Florida picking up their fourth interception of the afternoon and a 31-17 final at Florida Field.
Murphy, who has been waiting for a chance to play since John Brantley was the Gators' signal caller, was 8-for-14 for 134 yards and a TD and rushed for 84 yards and a score on 10 attempts,
Head coach Will Muschamp announced after the game that Murphy would start the remainder of season as Driskel's fibia will require surgery.
Next up: The Gators travel to Lexington to take on the Kentucky Wildcats next Saturday. Florida has beaten Kentucky 26 consecutive times. In the last meeting, the Gators shut-out the Wildcats 38-0 when Florida's WR coach/recruiting coordinator Joker Phillips was the head coach of UK.