GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Billy Napier praised his players for doing “what we should do” against lower-division McNeese on Saturday night.
Now, the Gators will try to do what they've done for the last two decades against Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee, and that's win at home.
Montrell Johnson ran for 119 yards and two scores, setting the tone for a 327-yard ground attack, as the Gators beat McNeese 49-7 and ended a four-game skid. Florida won for the first time since pummeling South Carolina 38-6 on Nov. 11, 2022.
“It's always fun when plays work,” Napier quipped. “We did some things that were significant statistically, but it wasn't really about that. I told the players in the locker room just now that I appreciate the response that we saw after last week, which was obviously disappointing.”
Coming off a humbling loss at then-No. 14 Utah, Florida was looking to establish its run-first identity and gain some much-needed confidence before hosting the ninth-ranked Volunteers next week. Tennessee last won in Gainesville in 2003, having dropped nine straight at Florida Field.
“Bigger challenges are coming,” Napier said.
The Cowboys (0-2) proved to be the perfect opponent for the reeling Gators: a team from the Football Championship Subdivision that was woefully overmatched in the Swamp.
Florida (1-1) scored rushing touchdowns on its first five possessions, with Johnson (twice), Graham Mertz, Treyaun Webb and Trevor Etienne finding the end zone. Once they had McNeese’s defense stacking the line of scrimmage, Mertz connected with Ricky Pearsall for a 50-yard score that made it 40-0 in the third. Pearsall finished with six catches for 123 yards on his 23rd birthday.
“We're a lot more confident,” Pearsall said. “You go out and execute plays, that boosts your confidence.”
Mertz completed 14 of 17 passes for 193 yards, with the throw to Pearsall being his longest and last of the night. Backup Max Brown took over late in the third.
It was a nearly perfect performance for Napier’s team, but it remains to be seen how sustainable it can be in SEC play.
Etienne ran 11 times for 84 yards. Webb added 71 yards and two TDs on 14 carries. Johnson and Etienne barely touched the ball against the Utes, combining for 31 yards on 10 carries in a game that got out of reach in the second half.
Napier vowed to get the duo more involved against the Cowboys, an easy call considering the talent disparity.
Florida won its 34th consecutive home opener, the longest current streak in college football. Even though 88,163 were present in the Swamp, this one was tempered a bit considering the loss at Utah.
McNeese punted on seven of its first nine possessions and failed to cross midfield after its opening drive. The Cowboys ran just 27 plays through three quarters and finished with 112 yards. They scored following a fumble with a couple minutes remaining to avoid a shutout.
D'Angelo Durham led the Cowboys with 45 yards rushing. Nate Glantz threw for 62 yards and was on the wrong end of the hardest hit of the night, a crushing tackle by linebacker Scooby Williams in the first quarter.
“I’m proud of these young men," McNeese coach Gary Goff said. "I did think they played extremely hard against superior talent. … I think the guys played a lot harder for four quarters than we did in week one. That’s all I can ask for these guys. The margin of error when you’re playing an SEC school is very small, and you saw that.”
McNeese: The Cowboys will get $500,000 for making the 700-mile trip to Gainesville, money that will help fund the entire athletic department. McNeese has played a payday game against a team from the Football Bowl Subdivision each of the last three years, losing 34-7 at LSU in 2021 and 52-10 at Rice last season.
Florida: The Gators surely would have liked to have played a cleaner game. A week after committing miscues galore at Utah, they had a botched snap on an extra point and an offsides penalty on third down — both coming in the first two drives of the game.
McNeese: At Alcorn State next Saturday.
Florida: Hosts Tennessee next Saturday. The Volunteers last won in Gainesville in 2003.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll