When Jaylen Wright ran into the end zone on third-and-goal and Gator chomped three times followed by a throat slash it felt like the Vols had sealed their victory over then-No. 20 Florida.
However, little comes that easy for Tennessee against its fiercest SEC east rival. The three-possession lead with 7:55 wasn’t enough for a drama free victory.
Florida scored a pair of touchdowns and recovered an onside kick to give them one final throw to the end zone in attempt to pull out a miraculous come from behind victory.
So what went wrong for Tennessee in the final 7:49 that gave the Gators hope with six seconds remaining?
Let’s start with what Josh Heupel said about his offense.
“Offensively, we want to finish out the four minute drive when we had the football and be able to be in a position to take a knee and end the game with us on the field offensively,” Heupel said.
After going up by three scores, Tennessee’s offense had one drive and while it didn’t accomplish Heupel’s stated goal it wasn’t awful. The Vols picked up one first down and made Florida use all of its timeout while taking 1:11 off the clock.
The upsetting part for Tennessee is that it was in third-and-four and could seal the win in two plays. A failed third down run and a Hendon Hooker throw short of the sticks is what cost the Vols’ offense a chance of ending any drama.
The biggest issues came on defense where Florida twice gashed Tennessee with chunk plays through the air. The Gators first went 75 yards in 3:06 before going 71 yards in an unfathomable 54 seconds. Tennessee obviously didn’t want to give up a long touchdown but played such soft zone defense that Florida scored with ease and little time exiting the clock.
“Defensively, we just didn’t do the things you need to at the end,” Heupel said. “That’s tight coverage, being able to affect the quarterback and get off the football field. There’s some things we have to do better. Handled the last play the right way. BY (Byron Young) was able to get pressure on the quarterback.”
Heupel’s most important words are Tennessee “handled the last play the right way.” Instead of a catastrophic loss, 101,915 celebrated postgame as the Vols earned a signature win. Next time, Tennessee may lead by just two scores instead of three and their mistakes could bite them.
Lastly, Heupel discussed the onside kick Florida recovered and the need for his team to put the finishing touches on victories.
“Obviously special teams, onside kick— you don’t want to give those up,” Heupel said. “You’re putting yourself in a susceptible position right there. There’s things in finishing out the game that we have to do a better job. That’s our entire football team, not one player or one unit.”
Tennessee returns to the field on Oct. 8 at LSU following its bye. ESPN is broadcasting the noon ET kick off in Baton Rouge.