Tennessee opened up SEC play Saturday night in Gainesville, taking a second quarter lead before Florida scored the game’s final 28 points to win 38-14.
Here are four quick takeaways from the Vols’ fifth straight loss to Florida.
Chunk Plays Give Tennessee’s Offense Success
We knew Tennessee would struggle to put together long scoring drives against a strong Florida defense and front seven. That prospect looked daunting in some ways as the Vols had failed to create chunk plays in the passing game the first three weeks of the season and the Gators bolstered a stout run defense.
While the Vols had a trio of three-and-outs and a five-and-out in the first half, Tennessee found a way to make plays and keep itself in the game into the second half.
The importance of those chunk plays was shown in the second half. Tennessee put together some longer drives after halftime, but didn’t score in the second half as they couldn’t put together lengthy drives against the Gators.
Trailing 7-0 on the second drive of the game, Heupel drew up a running back screen on third-and-eight. Tennessee running back Tiyon Evans high stepped a tackle in the backfield and went 47 yards to tie up the game.
Two drives later, trailing 10-7, Tennessee finally connected on its first downfield pass of the season. The Vols faked the wide receiver screen and the Gators bit big, allowing JaVonta Payton to get behind the defense for a 75-yard touchdown.
Florida Takes Control In The Third Quarter
Chase McGrath’s 47-yard field attempt, that would have tied the game at 17, sailed wide right give the Gators a three-point lead at halftime.
The No. 11 Gators came out firing with a six play, 78-yard touchdown drive to take a two possession lead.
Tennessee answered with its best drive to date, getting into Florida territory including a fourth down conversion. Heupel decided to roll the dice again on fourth down, going for it on fourth-and-five at the Gators’ 30-yard line.
Heupel drew up a nice play, getting Jimmy Calloway wide open on a shallow crossing route. Hooker put the ball on the money but the sophomore playmaker dropped the pass. Instead of what would have been a big gain into the Gators’ red zone, the Vols turned it over on downs.
Florida’s offense went to work again, going 70 yards on eight plays. The Gators established the run on the drive and Tennessee’s thin defense had no answers.
After having a chance to tie the game going into halftime, Florida all but put Tennessee away in the third quarter.
Tennessee’s Run Defense Holds Up In First Half, Struggles In Second
Florida ran for 245 yards in last week’s narrow loss to Alabama. The Vols entered the game with the SEC’s second best rushing defense— though Tennessee faced three week rushing attacks to start the season.
In the first half, the Vols’ run defense was solid. Florida ran for 109 yards on 22 carries and besides Nay’Quan Wright’s 23-yard touchdown run, Tennessee’s defense did a great job of limiting chunk plays and forcing the Gators into third down situations.
In the second half, the Gators’ offense began to ware Tennessee’s front seven down. Florida moved the ball through the air on its first touchdown drive of the second half, but turned to the ground on its second.
Florida ran the ball on seven of the drives’ eight plays, gaining 59 yards on the ground. Even after a holding penalty put Florida in first-and-20, the Gators ran it twice for the first down.
In total, Florida ran for 174 yards on 18 carries in the second half.
Tennessee particularly struggled containing Florida quarterback Emory Jones’ legs. The dual threat quarterback totaled 144 yards on 15 carries.
Odds and Ins
Hendon Hooker wasn’t perfect Saturday night, but was really solid making his first SEC start. The Virginia Tech transfer completed 13-of-23 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns, adding 30 yards on the ground.
Hooker has proven that he gives the Vols the best chance to win heading into a critical two games against Missouri and South Carolina. The senior signal caller was injured in the fourth quarter and didn’t return to the game. If serious, that is a major loss for Tennessee.
The Vols ran the ball better than expected Saturday night. Tennessee was far from imposing its will in the run game, but its running backs totaled 109 yards on 22 carries. The duo of Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans was back together for the first time since the first half against Pitt and impressed against the Gators.
Penalties cost Tennessee for the second time this season. The Vols recorded 10 penalties for 85 yards. Pre snap mistakes consistently cost Tennessee. Early in the fourth quarter, Tennessee took a delay of game penalty on fourth-and-two after running it on third-and-eight. Instead of taking the timeout when there was clear miscommunication, Tennessee ate the delay of game and decided to punt.
Cooper Mays returned to the lineup for the first time since getting injured in the season opener. It didn’t take long for Mays to get injured again, gritting out much of the second half while banged up.
Florida controlled the game on third down, converting nine-of-14 attempts. Tennessee on the other hand, converted just five-of-13 third downs.