Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III (7) and Jabari Small (2) celebrate Milton's touchdown during an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt on Saturday, November 25, 2023 in Knoxville, Tenn.

Joe Milton III (6 total TDs), No. 21 Tennessee top Vanderbilt

No. 21 Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III threw for 383 yards and accounted for six touchdowns, as the Volunteers scored a 45-24 win over Vanderbilt in their annual rivalry game in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday afternoon.

The Vols (8-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) never trailed and held a 617-306 edge in total offense.

Vanderbilt (2-10, 0-8) ended the season on a 10-game losing streak.

On the Vols’ first possession of the second half, Milton hit Ramel Keyton with a 46-yard touchdown, Keyton’s second of the day.

Milton accounted for his sixth score on a 2-yard rush with 13 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Vols knocked Vanderbilt starting quarterback AJ Swann out late in the third quarter. Vanderbilt then went to Ken Seals, who in the fourth quarter added a 1-yard scoring run and a 5-yard scoring strike to Quincy Skinner.

Tennessee took a 31-10 halftime lead and held a 347-189 edge in total yards, with Milton accounting for 252 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and a rushing score.

The Vols scored one minute into the game when Milton hit Keaton with a 56-yard touchdown pass.

But the Commodores struck right back to tie it when Swann hit Junior Sherrill with a 19-yard touchdown pass.

And then Vanderbilt’s offense stalled, leading to two more Tennessee scores.

The first came when Dee Williams returned a punt to the Commodores’ 39, setting up Milton’s throw to tight end McCallan Castles in the left corner of the end zone for a 10-yard score.

The Vols then partially blocked Matt Hayball’s punt, took over at their 27 and needed just four plays to score, when Milton hit Jacob Warren for a 34-yard touchdown.

The Commodores finally slowed the tempo, going 54 yards in 11 plays and getting Jacob Borcila’s field goal to pull within 11.

But Tennessee again answered with a seven-play, 59-yard drive that resulted in Charles Campbell’s 24-yard field goal with 6:04 left before halftime.

On Vanderbilt’s ensuing drive, a fight erupted after the Vols hit Swann on consecutive dead-ball plays. Both benches cleared and officials assessed offsetting personal fouls on each team. That drive ended with a fourth-and-36 and another Commodores punt.

Williams’s 20-yard return set the Vols up at the Vandy 46, and Milton added a 2-yard rushing score with six seconds left in the half.

–Field Level Media

Nov 11, 2023; Columbia, Missouri, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joe Milton III (7) throws a pass during the first half against the Missouri Tigers at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

No. 21 Tennessee poised for another pounding of Vanderbilt

No. 21 Tennessee aims to continue its domination of Vanderbilt when the in-state rivals close out the Southeastern Conference season on Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.

The Volunteers have won the last four games in the rivalry by a combined score of 171-48, including last year’s 56-0 pasting of the Commodores in Nashville.

Tennessee (7-4, 3-4) comes off a lopsided 36-7 loss at Missouri followed by last week’s 38-10 home setback against Georgia. The Vols allowed 530 yards to the Tigers and 472 to the Bulldogs.

Those results sparked a call for change at quarterback, where Joe Milton has not met expectations in SEC play with eight touchdown passes and five interceptions.

Fans may be clamoring to see No. 1 recruit Nico Iamaleava replace Milton, but head coach Josh Heupel isn’t likely to change signal-callers.

Iamaleava has completed 7 of 14 throws for 97 yards this season, all coming in garbage time of lopsided wins over UConn, UTSA and Virginia.

Heupel said before the season that he hadn’t planned to redshirt Iamaleava, one of two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. However, not playing him the past two weeks has preserved that redshirt.

Heupel also hinted at additional reasons for that decision.

Last Saturday, Tennessee played against Georgia without a pair of starting offensive linemen in tackle John Campbell Jr. and guard Anrej Karic. Starting lineman Javontez Spraggins also suffered a season-ending injury during the game, while a banged-up Gerald Mincey (the Vols’ other starting tackle) came in late.

“Well, at this point, just because there’s only one regular-season (game left), you know, I mean?” Heupel said. “There’s a lot of variables that are taking place outside on that field (Saturday). And what type of situation you want to put (Iamaleava in).”

The Commodores (2-9, 0-7), losers of nine straight, were off last week. They looked disinterested in the second half of a 47-6 shellacking at South Carolina two weeks ago.

“I’m still disgusted and I still feel like it was gross. … What I felt is, the team collapsed there,” coach Clark Lea said this week, reflecting on how Vanderbilt played against the Gamecocks.

Lea, a Nashville native and Vanderbilt alumnus who has played against the Vols, hopes his team will end 2023 on a better note.

“We’ve had a good two days (of practice), which we need to have in order to play better on Saturday,” Lea said on Tuesday.

Vanderbilt’s defense is last in the SEC in scoring defense (35.1) and total defense (440.2 yards). Health has been an issue in the secondary, where Lea said defensive backs Martel Hight, Marlen Sewell and Savion Riley are questionable this week.

Lea added that the flu had spread throughout the roster this week. Safety CJ Taylor was among those infected before returning to practice.

Lea declined to name a starting quarterback this week. Vanderbilt lists starters Ken Seals and Walter Taylor as co-starters this week, with AJ Swann the No. 3.

Seals and Swann have split time as starters, with Seals starting the last six contests.

Taylor has played against Ole Miss, Auburn and South Carolina. He didn’t attempt a pass against the Gamecocks but ran six times for 38 yards on a rain-soaked day.

–Field Level Media

Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne (1) runs the ball against Vanderbilt during the first quarter at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

Auburn cruises to 31-15 win over Vanderbilt

Jarquez Hunter rushed for 183 yards and had two long first-quarter touchdown runs, helping visiting Auburn open up an early lead it never relinquished in a 31-15 win at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.

Auburn (5-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) quarterback Payton Thorne passed for 194 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Vanderbilt (2-8, 0-6) totaled just 266 yards of offense, played two quarterbacks and didn’t go over 100 yards of total offense until just under four minutes remained in the third quarter.

The Commodores were 2 of 14 on third downs and were sacked five times.

After Vanderbilt was flagged for pass interference on third down, Thorne hit a wide-open Rivaldo Fairweather for a 53-yard touchdown to put Auburn up 24-7 with 13:36 remaining in the third quarter.

After another of Vandy’s seven punts, the Tigers tacked on more when Thorne hit Jeremiah Cobb with a shovel pass for a 5-yard score with 9:44 left in the third.

Vandy got its first offensive touchdown when Ken Seals found freshman Junior Sherrill across the middle for a 30-yard score that preceded Jayden McGowan’s 2-point conversion rush.

The Commodores forced a punt and drove to the Auburn 11. But a sack pushed Vandy back, setting up an unsuccessful fourth-and-15 with 5:48 left in the game.

Auburn’s Nehemiah Pritchett intercepted Seals with 1:50 left.

The Tigers had 226 yards to Vandy’s 93 in taking a 17-7 halftime lead.

Auburn’s Hunter ran through a gaping hole between center and left guard, dashing 67 yards for a touchdown exactly five minutes in on the Tigers’ second snap.

Hunter later found a hole on the right side of center, broke a few arm tackles and rumbled 56 yards for another touchdown at 3:01 of the first.

Vandy finally got on the board when Bryce Cowan jumped a Thorne pass at the Auburn 4 and easily scored with 12:15 left in the second quarter.

The Tigers had first-and-goal from the Vandy 3 inside the first half’s final minute. But a personal foul pushed Auburn back and eventually forced Alex McPherson’s 32-yard field goal with 20 seconds left.

Vanderbilt has now lost eight straight.

–Field Level Media

Oct 28, 2023; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Auburn Tigers quarterback Payton Thorne (1) rolls out to pass against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the fourth quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn hopes offense builds on progress vs. skidding Vanderbilt

Auburn hopes to inch closer to bowl eligibility when it visits Vanderbilt on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.

The Tigers (4-4, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) had their best offensive performance in league play in last Saturday’s 27-13 win over Mississippi State. Quarterback Payton Thorne was 20 of 26 for 230 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back Jarquez Hunter had 170 yards from scrimmage (144 rushing, 26 receiving) on 19 touches.

Coach Hugh Freeze had rotated quarterbacks, but Robby Ashford had less involvement in the offense (no pass attempts, two rushes for 8 yards) than in any Auburn game this season.

“Offensively, it was our best-balanced performance, for sure,” Freeze said. “It was good to see our receivers make some plays and our quarterback play with some confidence.”

This week offers a chance at continued improvement for Auburn. Vanderbilt ranks last in the SEC in total defense (436.8) and scoring defense (34.2).

But offense was also a problem for Vandy (2-7, 0-5) in last week’s 33-7 defeat at Ole Miss.

It appeared that quarterback Ken Seals — who began the season as the backup, but had started the last three games — had won the job, but coach Clark Lea pulled Seals for Walter Taylor in the first half before returning briefly to Seals, then back to Taylor.

Taylor threw the first 12 passes of his career, completing four for 38 yards, and was intercepted once.

Lea’s hope was that Taylor would boost the team’s struggling rushing attack (92.8 yards per game, 3.4 yards per carry). The 6-foot-7, 235-pound sophomore had team highs in rushes (20) and rushing yards (59) last week, and scored the team’s only TD.

This week’s depth chart has the pair listed as co-starters, with Seals listed first.

“As far as this Saturday, I don’t know if I would be a good coach if I discussed the plan,” Lea said.

The Tigers have been solid defensively, ranking sixth in the SEC in scoring defense (22.5) and 10th in total defense (368.4).

–Field Level Media

Oct 28, 2023; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi Rebels quarterback Jaxson Dart (2) runs with the ball as he is tackled by Vanderbilt Commodores defensive end-linebacker Miles Capers (29) during the first half at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12 Ole Miss scores quickly, blows out Vanderbilt

Quinshon Judkins rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns as 12th-ranked Ole Miss routed Vanderbilt 33-7 in Oxford, Miss., in their Southeastern Conference matchup on Saturday night.

The Rebels (7-1, 4-1 SEC) led 26-0 at half thanks to a 301-82 edge in total offense.

Jackson Dart threw for 240 yards and Dayton Wade had eight catches for 120 yards and a touchdown.

Vanderbilt (2-7, 0-5), wasn’t competitive from the jump and couldn’t protect starting quarterback Ken Seals, who went 4-of-8 passing for 22 yards and one interception).

Seals was pulled in favor of Walter Taylor in the middle of the second quarter, before briefly returning to Seals in the second half and then pulling him again.

Taylor, a sophomore, hadn’t thrown a pass in his college career until Saturday. He finished the game going 4-of-12 passing for 38 yards and also was picked off once. He rushed 20 times for 59 yards and the Commodores’ only touchdown. It came on Taylor’s 2-yard keeper with 1:57 left in the third quarter.

The Rebels took the opening kickoff and needed only 99 seconds to score, on Judkins’ 18-yard scoring run on a third-and-3 play.

On Vanderbilt first trip, the Rebels’ Zamari Walton stepped in front of a Seals pass and tipped it to Trey Washington for an interception, who returned it 25 yards to the Commodores’ 11. But the Rebels settled for Caden Davis’ 27-yard field goal.

After a Vanderbilt punt, Judkins dashed 40 yards through the middle of the Commodores’ defense to get the Rebels across midfield before Davis hit on a 48-yarder.

After a Vanderbilt punt early in the second quarter, Dart hit Wade with a 48-yard strike down the right sideline, and later, on a fourth-down play inches from the goal line, Dart made it 20-0 on a quarterback keeper.

Another Commodores punt later, Dart found Wade again for a 6-yard touchdown, extending the lead to 26-0 with 7:40 remaining in the first half.

Vanderbilt’s Langston Patterson picked Dart in the final minute of the first half, preventing more Rebels points.

–Field Level Media

Sep 30, 2023; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Mississippi Rebels running back Quinshon Judkins (4) runs the ball  during the first half against the LSU Tigers at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12 Ole Miss guarding against upset when Vanderbilt visits

No. 12 Ole Miss hopes to take another step toward playing for a conference title when it hosts Vanderbilt on Saturday in Oxford, Miss.

The Rebels are riding a three-game winning streak, the most recent victory being last Saturday’s 28-21 win at Auburn.

While Ole Miss (6-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) has primarily been known more for its offense under Lane Kiffin, the Rebels held Auburn to 275 yards a week after limiting Arkansas to 286. It’s the first time Ole Miss has held consecutive SEC opponents to fewer than 300 yards since 2009.

The Rebels, 24 1/2-point favorites over Vandy, trailed the Commodores at halftime last season before a second-half explosion keyed a 52-28 win in Nashville. Kiffin, addressing the issue of how to keep his team from becoming complacent as a heavy favorite, referenced that game as well as Virginia’s upset of North Carolina as tools the Rebels are using to combat that.

“We showed them some upsets that just happened, especially a really big one over in the ACC,” Kiffin said. “These guys were beating us at halftime last year. We’ve got a lot of work to put in, a lot of work to do, so it’s a lot more about us than who we’re playing.”

Ole Miss averages 39.7 points and 480.1 yards per game, with quarterback Jaxson Dart (1,840 yards passing, 346 rushing, 19 total touchdowns) leading the way. The improved health of wide receiver Tre Harris (102 of his 469 receiving yards last week) and tight end Caden Prieskorn (63 of his 125) has made the Rebels even more dangerous.

So has the re-emergence of preseason All-American Quinshon Judkins, who has recovered from a slow start to amass 366 of his 567 rushing yards over Ole Miss’ three-game winning streak.

Vanderbilt (2-6, 0-4) comes off a bye week in the midst of a difficult six-game skid. Last time out, the Commodores gave No. 1 Georgia a brief fourth-quarter scare before falling 37-20 in Nashville.

Turnovers — an SEC-leading 14, with a league-worst nine interceptions — have plagued Vanderbilt this season.

But the Commodores have started to get that under control as coach Clark Lea made Ken Seals the starting quarterback the last three games. In them, Seals has passed for 740 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.

“We’re going to stay the course with Ken,” Lea said. “We appreciate how he’s taken care of the ball. We’ve seen enough in the last few weeks to see Ken has stepped forward with confidence.”

Seals could use some help from the running game, which gained 18 yards on 15 carries vs. Georgia.

Perhaps the team’s biggest problem has been defense. The Commodores have allowed 437.5 yards and 34.4 points per game and a 50 percent conversion rate on third down (57-for-114).

Secondary health has been a part of that. All five of Vandy’s starting defensive backs have missed time with injury.

This week, Lea termed starting safeties De’Rickey Wright and CJ Taylor as “questionable” and “doubtful,” respectively. Starting cornerback BJ Anderson is again out, while starting cornerback Martel Hight (who missed the Georgia game) is back this week.

–Field Level Media

Oct 14, 2023; Nashville, Tennessee, USA;  Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Carson Beck (15) throws the ball against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the first half at FirstBank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 Georgia uses patient approach, takes down Vanderbilt

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck threw for 261 yards and a touchdown while leading No. 1 Georgia to a 37-20 victory over host Vanderbilt at Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday.

Beck was 29-of-39 passing with an interception for the Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC), while connecting with 10 different receivers, including Missouri transfer Dominic Lovett, who had nine catches for 72 yards and a TD.

Georgia’s Daijun Edwards ran 20 times for 146 yards, while the Bulldogs’ defense held Vandy (2-6, 0-4) to 18 rushing yards on 15 carries.

Georgia gained 542 yards of total offense to Vandy’s 219, ran 78 plays to the Commodores’ 44, converted 11 of 16 third downs compared to Vandy’s 2 of 9 and did not punt.

Even without gaudy statistics, Vanderbilt pulled within 27-14 on the opening play of the fourth quarter when Ken Seals hit Richie Hoskins with a 3-yard touchdown pass.

After Georgia went up 30-14 on Peyton Woodring’s third field goal, the Commodores’ CJ Taylor intercepted Beck and returned it to the Bulldogs’ 1-yard line, setting up Sedrick Alexander’s scoring run on the next play. But Seals’s 2-point conversion throw failed as Georgia led 30-20.

Edwards ripped off a 62-yard run to the Vandy 6 on the Bulldogs’ next drive, setting up his 1-yard scoring run and a 37-20 advantage with 3:13 remaining.

Georgia ran 38 plays to Vanderbilt’s 23 in taking a 24-7 lead at halftime.

The Commodores, who hadn’t scored a touchdown in the last four meetings with Georgia, delivered on the game’s opening drive when London Humphries caught a pass from Seals and went untouched for a 49-yard touchdown.

Beck fumbled on the ensuing possession at the Bulldogs’ 32, but Georgia forced a missed field goal.

The Bulldogs scored touchdowns on their next two drives with Beck’s 1-yard touchdown run, followed by a 2-yard scoring scamper from Kendall Milton early in the second quarter.

The Bulldogs tacked on Woodring’s field goal with 3:40 left in the half on their next trip.

Georgia’s Tykee Smith intercepted Seals and ran it back to the Georgia 45 with 37 seconds left, setting up Beck’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Lovett with 25 seconds remaining before half.

Georgia All-American tight end Brock Bowers left in the second quarter with an apparent ankle injury and did not return.

–Field Level Media

Oct 7, 2023; Athens, Georgia, USA; Georgia Bulldogs tight end Brock Bowers (19) runs after a catch against the Kentucky Wildcats at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 Georgia ready to roll again at Vanderbilt

Top-ranked Georgia will set out to extend a 23-game winning streak when it visits Eastern Division rival Vanderbilt on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.

The Bulldogs (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) haven’t always performed up to the standard that comes with being two-time defending national champions.

Two weeks ago, Georgia beat unranked Auburn, 27-20. Two weeks before that, it needed 21 unanswered second-half points in a 24-14 win over unranked South Carolina.

Last Saturday, Georgia looked more like the team that demolished TCU in last year’s national title game, scoring the first 21 points in a 51-13 rout of then-No. 20 Kentucky.

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart was pleased with the discipline his team showed against the Wildcats.

“Our team had great discipline tonight to not get cheap penalties,” Smart said after the game. “We told them. We said, ‘Hey, look, Kentucky is going to have some penalties. They’ll have guys push you or shove you.’ I just said, ‘Don’t respond.’ I thought our guys were really good.”

More important factors were the play of quarterback Carson Beck (28-of-35 passing, 389 yards, four touchdowns, one interception) and tight end Brock Bowers (seven catches, 132 yards, one score). That was part of a 608-yard outburst against a Kentucky defense that, before Saturday, was allowing 297 yards a game.

The Bulldogs’ defense also finds itself in a familiar position, ranking first in the SEC in scoring defense (13.0) and second in total defense (270 yards), while leading the SEC in fewest yards allowed per play (4.32).

Georgia is getting the job done through depth. The Bulldogs don’t have a player ranked in the top 40 of the SEC’s tackle leaders. Safety Malaki Starks has a pair of interceptions, while defensive back Tykee Smith has three picks.

“There aren’t a lot of holes on this team,” Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said of the Bulldogs on Tuesday.

Vandy (2-5, 0-3), meanwhile, looks to stop a string of five consecutive losses, the latest coming in Saturday’s 38-14 defeat at Florida. But Georgia has won the past five in the annual series, including the past two by a combined 117-0.

“I think our frustration — and there is frustration — is based off what our expectations were,” Lea said, “and so right now we’re shifting the focus back to improving our team and identifying the areas where we can push forward and build to a better performance on Saturday.”

Interceptions — Vanderbilt has thrown an SEC-worst eight while adding a league-worst five fumbles lost — helped lead to quarterback Ken Seals unseating AJ Swann.

Seals has thrown for 539 yards, four touchdowns and one pick while starting the Commodores’ past two games.

Vandy will need to get wide receiver Will Sheppard (35 catches, 550 yards, eight touchdowns) more involved. The senior reeled in an 85-yard touchdown catch against Florida last week, but caught just two balls for 22 yards otherwise.

The team’s biggest problem may be pass defense. Vandy ranks 12th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, allowing 7.6 yards per attempt and a league-worst 15 touchdowns (tied with LSU).

That could get worse on Saturday. On Tuesday, Lea said Vandy will be without a pair of starters, safety De’Rickey Wright and cornerback BJ Anderson, and termed starting corner Martel Hight “questionable.”

The Commodores will need punter Matt Hayball (an SEC-leading 50.1 yards per punt, 11 punts inside the 20) to help with field position.

–Field Level Media

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) warms up before the start of a NCAA college football game against Kentucky in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.

Baseball background helps Georgia QB Carson Beck face pressure

Georgia football fans have plenty of reason to be happy that a former Florida baseball commit is now running the Bulldogs’ offense.

As No. 1 Georgia begins preparations to visit Vanderbilt on Saturday, coach Kirby Smart pointed to quarterback Carson Beck’s baseball background as a major reason why Beck can handle the pressures of facing a heavy blitz when leading the nation’s top-ranked team.

There’s no blitzing in baseball, of course, but Smart feels there is immense pressure in different ways.

“You know, a baseball background, I’ve learned, gives you the ability to handle pressure, because there’s no greater pressure than you have to throw a strike,” Smart said. “Nobody can help you throw that strike — no coach, no pitching coach. You gotta stand out there and throw a strike. … And (Beck) does well under pressure, and he has 10 good friends that are on the same page with him.”

Beck had a career day Saturday when Georgia crushed then-No. 20 Kentucky 51-13. He set personal highs in completions (28 on 35 attempts), yards (389) and touchdowns (four) — all while Kentucky blitzed him relentlessly. He won SEC Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts.

“First and foremost, the offensive line picking up the blitz helps me. Big time,” Beck said Monday. “Not only that, but the center, Sedrick (Van Pran), and my study of film and seeing what defenses are going to try and do when they do blitz us, making the right ID as far as Mike points and changing protections and all that stuff. Having Sedrick there to help me with that and then also just studying film. Obviously, the execution of it, picking up the blitz, but that’s a huge credit to our offensive line.”

Smart cited not only Beck’s composure, but also his mental processing as keys to beat a blitz.

“You have to process information rapidly, and the more information you can handle, the more flexibility your offense has. And the flexibility of an offense is usually tied to what the quarterback can handle. And our quarterback — not only because he’s smart, because he’s also of age and been in the same system for multiple years — has been able to grow from that.”

Beck, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., grew up a Gators fan and committed at one point to play baseball for Florida with one of his friends. Before long, football became his best sport, and his best option for college.

“Being a pitcher, playing baseball, you’re the only guy that’s really doing anything when you’re up there pitching,” Beck said. “Baseball’s a little bit more boring of a sport. When you’re sitting there pitching, you’re the guy, all the weight is on you to sit there and execute. Whether you’re throwing 80, 90, 100 pitches a game. I definitely say that can accredit to the way that I handle pressure.”

After joining Georgia, he waited patiently behind Stetson Bennett, the quarterback of Georgia’s back-to-back national title teams.

Smart was never concerned about the Bulldogs’ shift this season from Bennett and offensive coordinator Todd Monken to Beck and new OC Mike Bobo.

“I made a quick decision there because I was really confident, and we had the luxury of having a quarterback coming back that really wasn’t your typical first-time starter,” Smart said. “When you have a guy that’s been in the system as long as he has, I felt comfortable that he knew the system.”

–Field Level Media

Florida Gators running back Montrell Johnson Jr. (2) drives to the end zone in the first half against Vanderbilt at Steve Spurrier Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, FL on Saturday, October 7, 2023. [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]

Florida pulls away from struggling Vanderbilt

Quarterback Graham Mertz led a balanced offensive attack that accounted for 495 yards, leading the Florida Gators to a 38-14 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday in Gainesville, Fla.

Mertz was 30-of-36 passing for 254 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Seven completions went to Arlis Boardingham for 99 yards and two scores.

Running back Montrell Johnson, subbing for injured starter Trevor Etienne, had 160 yards from scrimmage and rushed for 135 yards and a score. The Gators rushed for 215 yards.

The Commodores (2-5, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) were just 1 of 10 on third downs and failed to convert three times on fourth down, which included a first-half fumble by Quincy Skinner Jr. just after the receiver had gained a first down.

The Gators (4-2, 2-1) extended their lead to 28-7 when Mertz hit Eugene Wilson III with a 9-yard scoring toss with 3:16 left in the third quarter.

Vandy’s Ken Seals (19 of 34, two touchdowns, no picks) hit Richie Hoskins with a 21-yard touchdown throw with 44 seconds left in the third quarter — the first TD catch of walk-on Hoskins’ career — to pull the Commodores within 14.

But Florida’s Trey Smack converted a 40-yard field goal with 12:12 remaining in regulation and Boardingham added a 15-yard catch-and-run from Mertz with 7:19 left to put the game away.

Florida led 21-7 half thanks to a 13-7 edge in first downs and Johnson’s 118 yards from scrimmage. His 7-yard touchdown run with 41 seconds left in the half gave the Gators their first double-digit lead of the day.

Florida drove 93 yards in nine plays and scored first when Ricky Pearsall took an end-around and scooted 14 yards for a score with 9:05 left in the first quarter.

Vandy struck back when CJ Taylor intercepted a pass from Florida wide receiver Khaleil Jackson at the Commodore 11, setting up Seals’ 85-yard scoring strike to Will Sheppard two plays later to tie the game.

But Mertz answered with a 2-yard scoring strike to Boardingham. Vandy had a shot to tie later in the quarter, but a fourth-and-goal try from the Gator 4 failed.

–Field Level Media