Nine years of pressure, futility and frustration sat on Tennessee’s shoulders in the third quarter of Saturday’s game against the Gators.
All week the Vols were told they were the favorites. This was the year. This was the season. The #CheckerNeyland movement, Lil Jon’s support and the swell of optimism that surrounded the program all built to a crescendo as the Vols clung to a 9-0 lead.
Then the all-too-predictable unraveling came. It’s been like clockwork when the Gators are on the opposite sideline. Justin Worley dropped back, didn’t see the cornerback blitz and got drilled by Jalen Tabor. The ball came loose, Florida recovered it and five plays later, led by backup quarterback Treon Harris, the Gators started their comeback with a 2-yard touchdown run by Matt Jones.
The Gators would tack on a 49-yard field goal one possession later to take their first lead at 10-9. That’s all they’d need. The Vols were never able to get back in scoring position. The Streak lives on as Florida extended it to double-digits with 10 straight over the Vols in the series.
“We have to answer the call,” Butch Jones said. “You can’t turn the football over. Those were big-time turnovers. It’s a game of inches. It’s 2.7 seconds to make a decision.”
“It hurts a lot to be in control of the game for so long and not be able to finish,” added Worley.
Tennessee certainly had chances. The Vols came up empty on their final four possessions – ending the game with a catastrophic interception thrown by Worley into the hands of Florida safety Keanu Neal. Worley had just extended the drive on a scrambling completion to Pig Howard on a fourth-and-10 that moved the ball into Florida territory with one minute remaining and two timeouts in their back pocket.
That was one of three turnovers on the day for the Vols. Those, along with a poor rushing attack and an uncharacteristic amount of penalties (8), spoiled what was an impressive defensive effort against a Florida offense that was anemic for much of the game.
The Vols grabbed three interceptions of their own and returned two into the red zone. The first by Cam Sutton set the Vols up at midfield and eventually turned into a field goal after a dropped pass by Josh Malone on third down. The second by Jalen Reeves-Maybin was followed immediately by an interception by Justin Worley in the end zone. The third by Todd Kelly only turned into a field goal despite setting the Vols up inside the 20.
“We take great pride in scoring touchdowns and we weren’t able to do that,” Jones said. “I think that’s pretty much the story.
“You win football games by playing complimentary football. Offense, defense and special teams working as one. We did turn Cam’s interception into points, but at the end of the game, if you score touchdowns in the red zone, it changes the flavor of the game.”
The Gators got to Worley regularly, forcing six sacks, upping Tennessee’s total of sacks conceded to 14 over the past three weeks against quality opponents. Tennessee’s inexperienced offensive line is certainly to blame. But so are Worley and the rest of the offense. Though the Vols had a couple decent throws on double moves, the vertical passing game still isn’t there for them.
“Everybody wants to point to the offensive line, but it’s a team game,” Jones said. “It’s never one single person’s mistake.”
Sensing the frustration of a Tennessee fanbase that has been scarred over and over again and was ready for a massive breakthrough on Saturday afternoon, Jones took time to finish his press conference with a message specifically to the fans.
“I know everyone hurts,” he said. “Vol Nation hurts. I do want to say thank you to the fans. The fan initiative of Checkerboard Neyland was outstanding. I think it was a great illustration across the country. Just keep your patience please. We’re going to be alright. I told you this. It’s like raising your children. We’re raising a football program. And I’m angered, I’m upset, but I’m not discouraged because I see the progress everyday. You guys need to hang in there. We’re in it together. We’re going to get it. There will be days like this, but we’re going to have great days.
“I promise you, we’re going to get it right.”
The Vols will have to wait at least two more weeks for another big opportunity to find that breakthrough win in 2014. And it’ll be at least another year before they get another chance at the Florida streak. Meanwhile, the fans will keep waiting and waiting for Jones to come through on his promise.