Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
It was a tale of two halves for Florida and Tennessee at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, with the Volunteers exploding in the second half to win 38-28 and end their 11-year losing streak against the Gators.
Early in the fourth quarter, Jauan Jennings' 67-yard touchdown catch gave Tennessee its first lead of the game and put the pressure back on a Florida offense that was completely stifled in the second half.
The Vols added insurance on their next possession after they picked off Florida quarterback Austin Appleby. Joshua Dobbs threw a 42-yard score to Josh Malone, and the ensuing extra point extended Tennessee's lead to 10 points with just over 10 minutes remaining.
This was a stunning turn of events for Tennessee, which appeared doomed to another frustrating loss against its SEC East rival after trailing 21-3 at halftime.
ESPN.com's Travis Haney summed up the way this game went for Tennessee head coach Butch Jones:
The Gators controlled the game in the first half, coming right out of the gate strong when Appleby connected with wide receiver Antonio Callaway for a 51-yard gain on the second play from scrimmage, which led to a DeAndre Goolsby touchdown catch three plays later.
Tennessee's frustration started early because it wasn't taking advantage of easy opportunities. Callaway muffed a punt that Dillon Bates recovered at Florida's 2-yard line. After failing to get in the end zone on the first three plays, Jones opted to go for the touchdown on fourth down.
Dobbs rolled to his right and attempted to hitAlvin Kamara, but Florida defensive back Marcus Maye made a fantastic dive to get his hand on the ball and break up the pass to keep the score at 7-0.
Dan Wolken ofUSA Today said what everyone was thinking at that moment in the game:
Dan Wolken @DanWolken
That is Tennessee football under Butch Jones in a nutshell.
Things would get worse for the Volunteers before they got better. Florida's pass defense was particularly effective, limiting Dobbs to 84 yards in the first half, and the team allowed just three successful third-down conversions in 10 attempts before the intermission.
The Gators did start to crack, ever so slightly, late in the second quarter, giving up a field goal that cut their lead to 21-3.
Per Alligator Army, the Tennessee field goal ended an impressive Gators streak:
Dobbs was the star of the show in the second half. He finished the game 16-of-32 with319 passing yards,80 rushing yards andfivetotal touchdowns.
Gators head coach Jim McElwain found an offensive formula that was working early on. Appleby picked apart Tennessee's defense with 213 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, but he accumulated just 83 yards in the second half with most of them coming late in the fourth quarter when Tennessee was playing prevent defense.
Chris B. Brown of Smart Football pointed out how bad Purdue fans who were paying any attention to the game were briefly feeling:
Eventually, those same Purdue fans were nodding their heads and remembering why the program hasn't been to a bowl game since 2012.
Facing an 18-point deficit to start the third quarter, Tennessee found some life afterJennings caught a 23-yard pass to reach Florida's 34-yard line.
Two plays later, Teez Tabor picked off Dobbs to destroy Tennessee's scoring opportunity, which led to a question from Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee:
Adam Jacobi had this take on Tennessee's quarterback situation:
The early offensive struggles for Tennessee were not all Dobbs' fault, because his receivers dropped six passes in the first half, per ESPN's Laura Rutledge:
Laura Rutledge @LauraMRutledge
6 drops for #Vols receivers. I don't care if Josh Dobbs isn't consistently accurate. You have to make those catches. Lots of football left..
The turnover was a drive-killer, but the Vols did seem to gain a little confidence before that moment and carried it into their next possession, which resulted in a 23-yard touchdown catch from Jalen Hurd.
After the defense forced another quick three-and-out, the Volunteers went right back to work on a 51-yard drive that needed just three plays and was capped off by Ethan Wolf's 20-yard touchdown catch.
Once Tennessee's receivers starting catching the ball in the second half, the entire game changed. ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff tweeted the numbers showing Dobbs' improvement:
Edward Aschoff @AschoffESPN
Joshua Dobbs is 7-9 for 220 yards, 4 TD and an INT on throws 10+ yards downfield in the second half. He had just... https://t.co/g68AtaoGFFSee AlsoLsu softball commits 2022Copycat Papa John's Pizza RecipeLive updates: Battle continues on Smokies fire in Wears Valley, new fire at Millstone Gap
Florida's offense helped keep Tennessee in this game with a conservative approach in the second half. Appleby had tremendous success going deep over the top early in the game, but the Gators switched to a run-heavy approach after the break.
It wasn't a bad strategy because Florida's defense had been so good, but the offense has to at least give the other guys a break. The Gators didn't get a first down in the second half untilthere were less than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Athlon Sports captured a GIF of what things looked like for Florida in the third and fourth quarters:
The fine people at Freezing Cold Takes rubbed some salt in Florida's wounds with a collection of comments made by Tabor leading up to the game:
This was a statement game for Tennessee. It came into the week ranked 12th in the coaches poll, though there were worrisome performances against Appalachian State and Ohio that had left a lot to be desired.
Getting an opportunity to end a long losing streak against Florida at home in a nationally televised game was the perfect time to let the world know this year was going to be different at Rocky Top.
Things didn't look pretty early, but Jones and Dobbs found the right formula on offense against Florida's vaunted defense. The Gators offense was a mess trying to move the ball in the second half.
More important than exorcising the Florida-sized demon, the Volunteers got the inside track on representing the SEC East in the conference title game, especially after Ole Miss destroyed Georgia earlier in the day.
There's still a lot of football left to play, and the schedule does Tennessee no favors with matchups against Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama in the next three weeks, but this was the first step the program needed to take to prove 2016 is not going to be another disappointing year.
Despite falling behind 21-0 in the second quarter, Jones noted his team didn't show any signs of collapsing.
"I didn't see anybody blink," Jones said, perESPN.com. "Nobody flinched. They just kept playing."
The offense came to life with 35 points in the last 30 minutes, but Jones gave praise to one defender, per Rhiannon Potkey of theKnoxville News Sentinel:
Per Potkey, Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara shared the team's halftime message:
Things were not as chipper in Florida's locker room, though McElwain gave all the credit to Tennessee.
"They came in and took it to us," McElwain said, per ESPN.com. "It's disappointing. We've got a bunch of guys hurting in the locker room. ... These are life lessons. Not every day does everything go just like you wanted. I think the key is what you learn from it and how you're going to respond."
Despite the setback, Zach Abolverdi of theAtlanta Journal Constitution noted all the Gators players mentioned in their postgame interviews that Florida has never won a national championship without one loss.
That's a good attitude to have for the Gators heading into the heart of SEC play.