The Vols found themselves where they’ve been in a handful of games against their superior SEC rivals the past few seasons.
In 2019, Tennessee led Georgia in the second quarter. A year later the Vols’ held a narrow lead at the half against Florida.
Tonight, Chase McGrath’s 47-yard field goal sailed wide right as the clock ran out on the first half— making the Gators’ halftime lead 17-14.
In Josh Heupel’s first road game as the Vols’ head coach, Tennessee did what it couldn’t against Georgia in 2019— surviving what was nearly a disastrous end to the first half when Alontae Taylor stripped Florida receiver Jacob Copeland inside the UT 20-yard line.
However, Tennessee couldn’t clear the hurdle that tripped the Vols last season in Athens.
Florida extended its lead with a masterful six play, 78 yard touchdown drive to begin the second half and didn’t look back, scoring the game’s final 28 points to secure a 38-14 win, the Gators’ fifth straight over UT and ninth straight inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“A couple penalties on offense that hurt you in situational football,” Heupel said postgame. “Had some moving parts up front that played some part in that but at the end of the day when you’re playing at this level you have to go execute. We didn’t do a good enough job of that in the second half.”
Tennessee’s defense, which played over its head in the first half, had no answers for Dan Mullen’s offense in the second half.
Florida scored touchdowns on three of its four second half drives. The Vols’ one stop saw Florida punt from Tennessee’s 39-yard line.
The Vols contained Florida’s dynamic rushing attack for much of the first half. While it was far from perfect, Tennessee’s rush defense held Florida to just under five yards a carry and allowed just one run of 15 yards or more.
In the second half, that completely changed. Florida ran the ball at will against a thin Tennessee defense. The Gators ran for 174 yards on 18 carries, averaging just under 10 yards a carry.
“We just didn’t execute as well,” Tennessee defensive back Alontae Taylor said was the difference from the first to second half. “We missed a lot of tackles out there in the second half. We just have to come back better and be able to play games together from the first quarter all the way to the fourth quarter.”
Tennessee particularly struggled containing Florida’s Emory Jones’ legs. The dual threat quarterback totaled 144 yards—103 of which came in the second half— on 15 carries.
The Vols’ offense continued to leave plays on the field— something that’s plagued them all season— in the second half.
On Tennessee’s first drive of the second half, Jimmy Calloway dropped a pass while running a drag route on fourth-and-five. Not only would Calloway have picked up the first down, but one of the Vols’ best receivers after the catch and an abundance of space to make a play.
“The second half— the flow of it— the clock was draining on everybody’s drives,” Heupel said. “During the second half there weren’t a ton of opportunities. You have to maximize every one of those drives. A couple situations that we’re in on fourth down— we have Calloway on a simple drag route that’s got a chance to pick up the first down and maybe go the distance.”
Florida answered with its second 70 plus yard touchdown drive of the second half, taking a 31-14 lead and all but putting the Vols away.
Tennessee now heads into the biggest two week stretch of the season with a road trip to Missouri on deck and the SEC home opener against South Carolina up in two weeks. A pair of wins would all but clinch bowl eligibility for Tennessee. A split would give the Vols a fighting chance and a pair of losses would all but end the bid and have Tennessee staring down a collapse that resembles the 2020 season.
Despite a loss in Gainesville that saw Tennessee play its worst half of the season, Taylor is more than confident the 2021 Vols will avoid the fate of the 2020 Vols.
“We won’t fall apart,” Taylor said. “We’re going to get closer as a team. We’re going to go back and watch the film and we’re also going to continue to build that bond. Next week, we’ll handle that when that comes, but one thing I will say— we will not fall apart this year. You can quote me on that.”