Say what you want about the roller coaster that these Gators are riding this season, or about the flaws all over the field on both sides of the football. But these Gators did exactly what they needed to do on the road, against a rival, and in front of more than 100,000 fans who despise them and everything that relates to their program. That says something. No, it doesn’t mean the Gators are back. It doesn’t mean the Gators are ready to contend for the east. I mean I don’t even know if this is a product of Florida being a good team, or if it’s just Tennessee being that bad. I’m also unsure if this Florida defense is as ball-hawking as portrayed and if this will continue to be a trend this season, or if Tennessee just gift wrapped this game.
What we can take away from Saturday night is a team with a heartbeat, and when Tennessee gave Florida opportunities— the Gators took advantage. The Volunteers turned the ball over six times, and Florida handled business— throwing blows to the Vols when given the chance.
The first two turnovers came in the first quarter on the first two possessions of the game for Tennessee. The first was on a gnarly interception from linebacker David Reese II, who saw his first action of the season. Jachai Polite pressured Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano and Reese took advantage— giving the Gators the football deep into Tennessee territory. Feleipe Franks would find R.J. Raymond on a play-action near the goal line for a touchdown and give the Gators the early 7-0 lead. On the following possession, defensive tackle Luke Ancrum stepped in front of Guarantano’s pass for his first career interception, giving the football back to the Gators at the Tennessee 7-yard line. Franks would then score from one-yard out and before the Vols could even look up— it was a 14-0 hole.
The desperation began to set in for the Volunteers and those frustrations started to mount. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt practically threw a fit on the sideline in his first taste of this rivalry, and the Vols destruction had only just began.
Tennessee would gain some momentum late in the first quarter, when defensive back Alontae Taylor crept in the backfield and blew up Lamical Perine on a hand-off, forcing the fumble and giving the Vols the football in UF territory. Tennessee would eventually settle for a field goal and get on the board.
Pruitt, pulling out his old boss Nick Saban’s bag of tricks, would attempt an onside kick to try to kick-start some of that momentum. Give props to Perine for showing resolve after the fumble, as he was ready for the trickery and made a play with the onside recovery and swung that momentum back UF’s way.
After a beautiful punt from midfield by Tommy Townsend, the Gators forced Tennessee to start inside their own 2-yard line, and CeCe Jefferson stuffed running back Ty Jordan in the end zone for the safety— giving UF the 16-3 lead and the football back. In my mind, the safety is as good as any turnover and should be number 7 on the day— as it gave Florida 2 points and the football back.
On the very first play after the kickoff— Franks rolled out and found speedy wideout Freddie Swain on a crossing route. Swain turned on the jets and went untouched 65-yards to the end zone. Just like that— it was a 20-point UF lead and a stunned crowd.
Perhaps the story of the day for Tennessee could be summed up all in one play shortly thereafter. The Vols were looking to get back in it and Guarantano would find tight end Austin Pope wide open. Pope would bring it all the way inside the 10 without any Gators around, and C.J. Henderson would make the touchdown-saving tackle knocking the football loose in the process. The ball would bounce into the back of the end zone— giving the Gators the football back at the 25-yard line.
It was a very frustrating first half for the Vols, but moreover a tremendous set of opportunities that Florida seized to take an emphatic 26-3 lead going into halftime.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, it was much of the same for Tennessee as Shawn Shamburger coughed it up and the Gators pranced on it— giving Florida ball at the Tennessee 19-yard line. On the next play, Jordan Scarlet shredded tackles on his way to the end zone for the second time this season, and just like that the Gators were up by 30.
After Tennessee answered with a field goal on their following drive, the UF defense would get greedy again. Guarantano attempted a dangerous pass into triple coverage and safety Brad Stewart would make him pay, giving the Gators turnover number 6 with the interception.
Florida’s offense sputtered for much of the second half as it appeared Mullen just wanted to ice the game and get out of Neyland.
But anyway, you want to slice it, Florida needs to be much more consistent over four quarters and need to avoid giving up so many big plays.
Guarantano took a beating from UF’s defensive line, as it looks like the Gators talented front finally woke up.
As the game wore on, Tennessee would try to test the opposite side of the field of Henderson in an effort to get their playmaker Marquez Callaway going, as they couldn’t get much going with Callaway matched up on the stud Henderson. This is a big deal for Florida going forward, and even though I think the sophomore Brian Edwards and the true freshman Trey Dean III will continue to improve each week— Florida is seriously missing shutdown corner Marco Wilson’s services on the other side of Henderson. Florida’s defensive line needs to continue to dominate each week, and if that happens then that void in the secondary might not be so dramatic.
I’m not ready to say Florida is hitting their stride or anything— I’ll know much more after the next two weeks. But this front seven came to play for the first time this season on Saturday night.
Maybe it was the return of Reese that sparked the energy, or the bad taste of the Kentucky disaster, but whatever it was— the Gators were locked and loaded from the opening snap.
Another interesting takeaway as we put this one to bed is that — this is the most points that Florida has ever scored in Knoxville. Yes, more than any of Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer’s teams. This team. Yes, shocking I know.
As we turn the page to Mississippi State next week— Florida can take pride in the dominant win on the road over a rival and take some momentum as they get ready to head on the road to Starkville. But this team is still a work in progress and there’s definitely no time for back-patting.
For now, I’ll call it what it is and only what it is, a step in the right direction for this program. How big of a step is yet to be determined.