Tennessee football opened up SEC play with a 29-16 loss at Florida Saturday night. The Vols took an early 7-0 lead before Florida scored the final 26 points of the first half and coasted to a rivalry victory.
Here are five critical moments in Tennessee’s loss at Florida.
Milton Goes Over Top The Florida Defense Twice
Things started about as well as they could for Tennessee at Florida. After blocking a long field goal try on Florida’s first drive, Tennessee’s offense looked like its 2022 offense on the first drive of the game.
Josh Heupel got Joe Milton III comfortable with a couple quick screens to open the game before taking the top off the opponent’s defense for the first time all season.
Squirrel White got loose down the sideline for a 41-yard gain as Tennessee’s offense hit its second deep passes of the season. Tennessee went back to the well a play later when Ramel Keyton beat his man on a fade route and hauled in Milton’s pass for an 11-yard touchdown.
The Volunteer quick strike made Tennessee’s offensive struggles against Austin Peay look like an afterthought and provided a jolt of confidence for Milton. But it turned out to be the Vols’ best offensive drive of the game.
Back Breaking Third-And-Long Conversion
Tennessee led 7-6 in early the second quarter with Florida on the move. The Gators’ decision to play keep away from Milton and the Vols’ offense paid dividends all first half but was done to perfection on Florida’s third drive of the game.
Bryson Eason’s first down sack (Tennessee’s only sack of the game) put Florida in second-and-17 and than third-and-12 at the Gators’ own39-yard line. The Vols’ defense had Florida right where it wanted them on the seventh play of the drive but couldn’t get off the field.
Roman Harrison got too far up the field on a pass rush, Graham Mertz easily escaped the pocket and lasered a pass on the sidelines between the Vols’ zone coverage. Kahleil Jackson made a spectacular sideline grab for an 18-yard gain into Tennessee territory.
Seven plays later, Florida found the end zone to take a lead it would never relinquish. It was a 14-play, 82 yard drive that ran over seven minutes off the clock and in my estimation truly began the Vols’ second quarter spiral.
Florida went seven-of-eight on third downs in the first half, but the third-and-12 conversion to cross midfield in the second quarter was the biggest back breaker.
Milton’s Unanswered Prayer
Two plays after the touchdown, things went from bad to worse for Tennessee. Joe Milton III stepped up into a collapsing pocket and tried to go over top the Florida defense again.
Only this time, Florida defensive tackle Desmond Watson hit him as he lofted a prayer over the middle of the field. It went unanswered. Florida safety Devin Moore sat under the high arching pass like a punt, returning the interception inside the Vols’ red zone.
A personal foul made it first-and-goal Florida. Tennessee nearly stopped the spiral when Florida fumbled on second down, but the Gators recovered and punched it into the end zone a play later.
After Florida spent 16:17 of the game’s first 21:08 with the ball, Tennessee’s offense made the Vols’ tired defense come back on the field just two plays and 36 seconds.
The Vols did not play complimentary football at Florida and Milton’s interception was the worst example as Tennessee couldn’t stop its downward second quarter spiral.
The Kicked Football And The Re-Spot
Tennessee had two chances to truly push Florida and make it a game in the second half. The first came with Tennessee on the move and trailing 26-10 in the third quarter.
Inside the Florida red zone, Jaylen Wright ran for two yards on third-and-three to set up fourth-and-one. The Vols were going fast and trying to catch Florida unaware. But then an official accidentally kicked the football delaying the play while he re-spotted the ball.
Florida ran its big fellas onto the field during the delay and proceeded to stuff Wright’s fourth down run forcing a turnover on downs. Tennessee could have a run a quarterback sneak with its 6-foot-5 quarterback or could have simply blocked the Gators’ big fellas better.
But neither happened amplifying the officials odd miscue of kicking the football.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an official kick the ball,” Heupel said postgame. “We have to go check the rule book.”
The fourth down stop killed Tennessee’s early second half momentum and ended a potential scoring drive.
Brutal Below The Waist Block Flag
Tennessee’s defense forced a three-and-out following the turnover on downs and gave its offense another chance to cut into Florida’s 16-point lead.
The Vols looked like they were on the move again when Milton found Small for a 13-yard gain to the Florida 38-yard line on a beautifully designed screen pass.
Only it didn’t stand, the officials called an illegal below the waist block on McCallen Castles which was non existent upon further review. While the official kicking the ball was an odd instance which hurt Tennessee, the Vols still had every chance to convert fourth-and-one after it.
This penalty all but ended Tennessee’s drive, moving them back 28 yards from the would have been result and into a nearly impossible second-and-27 scenario.
The Vols got it to fourth-and-six but couldn’t convert. When Florida followed it up with a field goal to extend its lead to three possessions, the game was all but over.