GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Billy Napier sat in his office Friday on the eve of what would end up being his biggest win yet as Florida’s head football coach.
He talked about investment, about belief, about building something the right way.
“Now we need that spark, that’s all, something that allows our players to taste a little bit of the fruits of their labor,” Napier told ESPN.
The Gators didn’t just taste those fruits Saturday night with the Swamp rocking the way it did in the old days under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. They squeezed every bit of juice they could out of the Big Orange, aka No. 11 Tennessee, in a 29-16 victory that Napier called validating in more ways than one.
“It validates your plan. It validates what you’re selling to some degree, the things that you continue to harp on,” said Napier, who had been on the proverbial hot seat (at least the perceived hot seat) after losing five of his last seven games a year ago in only his first season.
Then to open this season, that heat only ratcheted up among many in the fan base after an ugly, mistake-filled 24-11 loss to Utah.
“Success is a dirty process and ultimately it’s rewarding,” Napier said. “You have to go through some ups and downs along the way.”
As validating as Saturday’s win was for Florida, it was equally complete. The Gators (2-1) were dominant in the line of scrimmage. They mixed the pass with the run on offense, and quarterback Graham Mertz was repeatedly able to make key throws on the move. When the Gators surged ahead 26-7 late in the second quarter, they had outgained the Vols 282 to 98 yards.
Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne rushed for a career-high 172 yards. His 62-yard touchdown romp answered a Tennessee touchdown in the first quarter, igniting a 26-0 spree for the Gators that kept the Vols on their heels the rest of the game.
“Just like I said earlier in the week, it was going to be a physical game, and my offensive line came out and dominated for 60 minutes,” Etienne said.
In the season-opening loss to Utah, no Florida running back managed a run of longer than 9 yards. Etienne’s 62-yarder against the Vols came against a Tennessee defense that struggled to tackle in the open field for much of the night.
“We needed a big play to get the offense going, and it just happened to be me,” Etienne said.
After building the big first-half lead, Napier said he might have gotten a bit conservative in the second half, but he wanted to limit Tennessee’s possessions on offense. The 16 points marked the third-lowest output for the Vols since Josh Heupel arrived in 2021.
And the locale for Napier’s first signature win was fitting. It has been two decades since the Vols last won at the Swamp, a 24-10 win in 2003 in Ron Zook’s next-to-last season as Florida coach.
“It’s just all about if we’re going to come together or we’re going to separate,” said Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III, who threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns but also had an interception that led to Florida’s third touchdown.
Milton, who is from Pahokee, Florida, stoked the fires in the rivalry this offseason when he was quoted as saying, “I don’t lose in Florida.”
The Florida players filed those comments away and took to social media late Saturday to poke back at Milton.
Told that one of his teammates had already posted something about it, Florida linebacker Scooby Williams quipped, “He beat me to it.”
When Florida wasn’t beating Tennessee up in the line of scrimmage, the Vols were doing a good job of beating themselves. They had 10 penalties for 79 yards, eight of those on offense. Most stemmed from their inability to deal with the crowd noise, reminiscent of the loss last season at Georgia.
The game ended in a near-brawl after a couple of timeouts in the final 15 seconds, the first one by Napier and then one by Heupel. On fourth down, Mertz delayed downing the ball out of the “victory formation” while trying to run out the clock and was then hit by Tennessee defensive lineman Omari Thomas just as his knee touched, prompting the officials to throw a flag for targeting and players from both sides going after each other in front of the Florida sideline.
Finally, after order was restored and the athletic directors for both schools met with the officials and coaches on the field, the players were called out of the locker room to finish the final seconds. The targeting penalty on Thomas was overturned, and Milton kneeled the ball down, setting off a Swamp-sized celebration.
“That was the weirdest ending to a game I’ve ever had,” Mertz said. “But I guess that’s just Florida-Tennessee. Kind of the way it goes.”
Heupel said he would prefer that his team be more composed in such situations, but added, “Their guy is dancing, and you have to go tackle him.”
As sweet as the win was for the Gators, the first for Napier over a nationally ranked SEC team, it was all too familiar for the Vols, who’ve lost 17 of the past 19 meetings in the series. For perspective, Heupel was just three years removed from playing quarterback at Oklahoma when Tennessee last won in Gainesville.
The Vols’ drought in the Swamp spans six coaches: Phillip Fulmer, Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt and Heupel.
“A loss like this will light a fire under anybody,” Tennessee receiver Bru McCoy said. “Me, personally, I’m not going to take it lightly. I think the rest of the offense will have the same mindset.”
For Napier and Florida, that mindset is that this is just the start. The Gators have the No. 3 recruiting class in ESPN’s 2024 rankings, and Napier was out on the field talking to recruits an hour after the game Saturday.
“Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do, but you want to see your people have success, right?” Napier said.
Or as Williams said, “It’s what we do from here that counts.”