Instant Analysis: The biggest win of the Billy Napier Era

by Zack Weiss
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Billy Napier & Co. welcomed 11th-ranked Tennessee into The Swamp Saturday night in what was Florida’s biggest game since beating Utah last year. And, well, Gator Nation left Ben Hill Griffin with the same ear-to-ear grins that they did then. Because Graham Mertz, Trevor Etienne, Montrell Johnson, and an inspiring defensive performance got the job done, as the Gators came away with a 29-16 win over the Volunteers.

Inside the Gators’ Instant Analysis takes a quick look at how the game unfolded.

IT WAS OVER WHEN: Napier had the guts, the courage, the you-know-what’s, to go for a 4th & 1 within his own 25-yard line up 29-16 with less than six minutes remaining. It worked out — courtesy of a Tennessee false start — and Florida extended the drive until there was just 3:49 on the clock. But, man, imagine it didn’t. This thing could’ve flipped quickly. No point in thinking that way though, because it did work out — splendidly for the Orange & Blue. Tennessee just wasn’t left with enough time after that drive, which is thanks to Napier’s tough call. And the Gators were able to hold on for sweet victory. It’s like he says: Scared money don’t make money.

THEY STOLE THE SHOW: Gator Nation, the Gators’ faithful, The Swamp, whatever you want to call them, however you want to describe the atmosphere Tennessee was subjected to playing in, the show was stolen — in magnificently loud fashion — for 60 straight minutes by Gators fans. The Swamp hasn’t been as loud as it just was since that aforementioned Utah game (Billy Napier’s first as Florida’s head coach). The Vols looked out of sorts all night — aside from that opening drive — and it’d be crazy to think the fans didn’t act as a 13th man in making that happen. Tennessee had multiple false starts early on and in some key spots, finishing the game with 10 penalties for 79 yards.

THESE STATS DON’T LIE: In their Week 1 loss to Utah this year, the story for Florida was third down conversions — or, rather, a lack-there-of. Against Tennessee, it was a whole different story. The Gators converted on seven of 13 third downs, many of which were long. It sounds simple, but, really, when you convert third downs at a high rate, your chances of winning the ball game are quite high.

THIS MATCH-UP PROVED KEY: Graham Mertz vs. Tennessee’s pass-rush

Simply put, Graham Mertz won. This was always going to be a matchup to watch, as Tennessee came in leading the nation in sacks. And Florida’s offensive line, well, still had some question marks. But, as it turned out, Mertz was ready for the moment. The Gators’ O-line wasn’t particularly good — at least not against the pass rush — but Mertz bailed them out time and time again, especially in that first half. He made some elite throws on the run while having to escape the pocket most plays. The Vols’ front seven showed up, but the Gators’ QB came ready for it. Mertz finished with 166 yards on 19-24 completions (79.2%) and a touchdown with no picks. He had a passer rating of 151.

WHAT A PLAY: This easily could’ve been any one of Mertz’s magical third-and-long conversions, or Devin Moore’s early-second-quarter interception, but Trevor Etienne’s 62-yard TD run with 4:20 left in the first quarter changed everything for the Gators. Everything. After taking half the quarter for a single drive just to come away with zero points, Tennessee immediately drove down the field and scored — almost embarrassingly easily. It looked like it might be a long night for the Orange & Blue. That is, until Etienne broke through and got Florida on the board — providing his team momentum they’d go on to never lose. Etienne finished with a career-high 172 yards, to go along with a score, on 23 carries.

UP NEXT: The Gators (2-1) will be back in The Swamp next Saturday, Sept. 23, to take on Charlotte (1-2) at 7 p.m.

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