Tennessee lost its sixth-straight football game on Saturday afternoon inside of Neyland Stadium, falling to No. 6 Florida 31-19.
The Vols led 7-3 in the second quarter courtesy of a 15-yard passing touchdown from Harrison Bailey to Eric Gray. Florida would then go on to score 28 unanswered to secure the SEC East and a birth in the SEC Championship Game.
Here are our five biggest observations from Tennessee’s fourth-straight loss to the Florida Gators:
Bailey makes first career start
Bailey looked solid for a true freshman making his first career start against the sixth-ranked team in the country. He threw his first career touchdown pass and gained confidence as the game progressed. The team seemed to respond well to Bailey leading the charge.
In his three quarters, Bailey finished 14-of-21 passing for 111 yards and a touchdown. He did not turn the ball over and had several nice scrambles despite finishing with negative rushing yards as a result of being sacked five times.
“With Harrison, it being the first time he played in a game like that, all the way through,” Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt said following the game. “Probably held the ball a few times too long there. Thought he kept his poise. I thought he scrambled well. Kept his eyes down the field. Really a lot of positives there to see.”
Shrout gets the fourth quarter
Redshirt sophomore J.T. Shrout looked just as good, if not better, as Bailey. Shrout played the entire fourth quarter after Bailey played the first three.
In Shrout’s first game action since he played against Kentucky in September, he completed 12-of-14 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown. He also did not turn the football over, though he was sacked once.
“I thought JT came in there and done a really nice job too,” Pruitt said. “I thought he has taken a lot of advantage of the opportunities he’s had. He had a really good week, last 10 days were really, really good. Unfortunately hurt his arm a little bit, but looked like he played ok with it today.”
CBS mentioned multiple times during the broadcast that Shrout suffered a torn labrum during practice this week. Turns out, the result of a pop in his right arm during Wednesday’s practice wasn’t as bad as anticipated.
“I had an MRI done,” Shrout told the media following the game. “I didn’t have any tearing or anything like that. Just a little bit of scar tissue.”
Third down struggles continues
Tennessee was tied for third-worst in the SEC in third down defense entering Saturday’s game. Opponents converted 50% of the third downs they faced over UT’s first seven games.
Florida finished a hair under the typical third down conversion rate, picking up a first down on the money down on six of the 13 (46.2%) third downs it faced. The Gators were 3-of-6 in third-and-long (9+) situations, and 2-of-4 in third-and-short (1-4) situations.
“You can coach them up and coach them to where maybe they can make that play,” Pruitt said of the third down struggles. “That’s a good call on their part or a bad call on our part, either way you want to look at it. But you can’t give alley oops. When we have good calls called, we need to execute them and get off the field.”
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask completed 35-of-49 passes for 433 yards and four touchdowns on the day. Trask completed passes to nine different Gators and didn’t turn the football over.
The Heisman hopeful was good in all situations, but was extremely efficient on third down. Trask was 7-of-10 passing for 130 yards on third down, while picking up six first downs through the air. He averaged 18.6 yards per completion on the money down.
“You can play inside man-to-man or you can play outside man-to-man,” Pruitt further explained when recalling some of the third down conversions his defense gave up. “If they’re running inside breaking routes, you like to lay them inside-out. There were three times tonight that they converted first downs when we’re playing inside man-to-man and they complete balls breaking inside. One time we gave up a first down on third-and-12 and we called Cover 2. And the corner don’t split the zone and get to the sticks, which is the first down marker, in case you don’t know. So I would start from the sticks and make them throw the football in front of me, then go tackle them. There’s four first downs. That’s four too many.
“Because (Florida is) good enough that they’re going to make some first downs on their own. They caught a corner route down there. We’re playing inside man-to-man on that one. That’s a tough cover. That’s a tough cover for anybody. You’ve got to push into them.”
It’s execution, not effort
Pruitt and Tennessee’s players were adamant following the game that Saturday’s 12-point loss was purely a result of poor execution, not effort, which has been questioned at times throughout the season.
“I thought our kids fought hard,” Pruitt said. “When you look at the circumstances a lot of these guys were around, we made a ton of mistakes today. But some of the mistakes we made were probably were where we need to do a much better job getting the guys ready to play. Some of them was because guys hadn’t practice in two weeks.”
Several players missed the last two weeks of practice due to contact tracing. The Vols had a couple of players test positive for COVID-19 which placed several players in quarantine. Pruitt said last Monday that 16 players were in quarantine. Most of those players came out of quarantine on Friday night or Saturday morning. Those same players played against the Gators without practicing.
“We don’t have an effort problem,” Pruitt said. “We don’t have a toughness problem. We got an execution problem. And we’ve got to work hard to fix that. And our guys will.
“I don’t know how to describe even how many guys that didn’t practice, that just showed up and wanted to play. They didn’t have to play.”
Tennessee now turns its attention to a winless Vanderbilt team that didn’t play this weekend because it didn’t meet the necessary roster requirement of 53 players due to COVID, opt outs, transfers, and injuries.
Pruitt and the Vols are desperate for a win. The program is looking to snap a six-game winning streak, while Pruitt just may be coaching for his job. It’s highly unlikely that Tennessee would move in a different direction after the season. With the way the season has played out, however, things could change in a hurry with a loss to a Vanderbilt team that just fired its head coach.
The SEC has not yet announced what time the two teams will play next Saturday in Nashville.