KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - They danced and laughed last night in front of a few thousand fans in their little corner of Rocky Top.
Then walked away with another big victory.
The fourth-ranked Florida Gators, reigning kings of the Southeastern Conference, slapped away a year of hype and hysteria with a 35-29 victory over second-ranked Tennessee in front of a record 107,608 fans at Neyland Stadium and a national television audience.
A wild first half, a bizarre second half, and an ending that has become all too familiar to Tennessee: Rocky Flop.
"We've always got a big game in us," Florida center Jeff Mitchell said moments after Gator players ran with team flags and celebrated with their fans in the end zone. "They've talked about this game for a year. All that matters is what you do on the field."
For the fourth consecutive season, what happened on the field has a direct affect on what could happen down the road.
The victory, the Gators' fourth in a row in this heated rivalry, puts them in the driver's seat for SEC East Division title and leaves Tennessee wondering what if again.
"I'm very proud of our team," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier. "I thought we played exceptionally well and were very prepared."
Much of that can be attributed to the Florida defense, which set the tone early with an impressive first half, then held in the second half. Tennessee (2-1 overall, 0-1 in the SEC), which failed on an onside kick with 10 seconds remaining, wound up with big offensive numbers and nothing to show for it.
The Vols (2-1 overall, 0-1 in the SEC) finished with 501 yards and held Florida (3-0, 1-0) to 304, but stumbled through six turnovers in the first half while the Gators jumped to a 35-0 lead. Heisman Trophy candidate Peyton Manning threw for a school-record 492 yards, but still doesn't have a signature victory.
"The numbers don't mean anything," said Florida linebacker James Bates. "The only thing that matters is the letter. And that W Ãwin´ looks pretty good right now."
And it all began with a first half surge by Florida -- both offensively and defensively. The defense was making big plays and the offense, behind All-America quarterback Danny Wuerffel (11 of 22, 155 yards, 4 TD), was striking quickly.
Florida picked up where it left off last year in Gainesville, extending last year's second-half dominance into this season with a combined 76 points in a little more than three quarters from the second half of 1995.
Wuerffel, who threw for six touchdowns in last year's game, got things going early on the first series, hitting Reidel Anthony with a 35-yard touchdown pass on a fourth and 11 from the UT 35.
It was all downhill for the Vols after that.
"That was a big play," Anthony said. "That kind of showed them that we were ready to play."
Florida went from leading 14-0 early in the second quarter, to leading 35-0 in a span of 1:51. The first score at 11:57 of the second quarter came after the Gators' longest time-consuming drive (3:32) of the game finished with a 5-yard pass from Wuerffel to Ike Hilliard.
The Gators then turned two turnovers into two touchdowns -- a 15-yard pass from Wuerffel to Jacquez Green and a 27-yard fumble return for a touchdown by cornerback Anthone Lott of Jacksonville.
"We went out there and took it to them," Lott said. "That's how you have to play. You can't sit back and hope things will happen."
Two series by the Florida defense late in the first half were a microcosm of the unit's play that set the tone of the game early.
With Florida leading 35-6, Tennessee drove inside the Florida 20 twice and got nothing from it. Manning, who had as many interceptions in the first half (four) as all last year, was combined 0 for 8 on the two drives -- both of which ended in interceptions (Fred Weary and Lott) at the goal line.
The turnovers were the fifth and sixth of the half by Tennessee.
"We challenged them and we rose to the occasion," said Florida safety Lawrence Wright. "Maybe it's good that we didn't blow them out. Maybe this will make us understand that we still have a lot of work to do."
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