Defense stands out

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The 10-point fourth quarter for the Florida offense was enough to help the Gators escape Knoxville with a win, but without a dominant defensive effort, Florida wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come back and win.

The Gators allowed 233 total yards on the ground with 205 of those yards coming through the air. Justin Worley went 26-39 for 205 yards and two interceptions while being sacked six times. The Florida defensive line collapsed the pocket and forced Worley to rush some throws while recording sacks -- three by Bryan Cox, Jr.

The ground game was where the Florida defense dominated. Even without two starters -- defensive tackle Leon Orr and linebacker Michael Taylor the Gators were able to hold Tennessee to 28 rushing yards. Those numbers were held down by Worley’s -45 rushing yards when the sacks were included, but even the Tennessee skill players ran for 75 yards on 22 carries.

For the 14th consecutive meeting between the two teams, the one that led game in rushing yards won.

The Florida defense was put in some bad situations after turnovers. All three of Jeff Driskel’s interceptions gave Tennessee the ball on a drive that started in Florida territory. Those three drives ended with a total of six points for the Volunteers. It’s a situation the Florida defense is used to.

“I tell our guys, ‘you’re the fireman. You better put the fires out. I don’t want to hear excuses, we ain’t pointing fingers.’ It’s an opportunity for greatness,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said.

The one time Tennessee didn’t get points off a turnover, it was All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III that saved the day. Driskel was intercepted by Jalen Reeves-Maybin on the first play of the second half, giving the Volunteers the ball at the Florida 26-yard line.

Tennessee couldn’t take advantage, as Worley threw an interception on the first play of the drive. Hargreaves jumped a route in the end zone and intercepted the pass, giving the ball back to the Gators and keeping the score 3-0.

It was a big game for a secondary that needed a confidence boost. Florida played Brian Poole at nickel much more on Saturday than any previous game this season. With the junior sliding inside, it meant more time for freshman Jalen Tabor outside at cornerback. The former high school All-American didn’t disappoint. Tabor ended the game with five tackles, one forced fumble and recovery, one pass breakup and one sack.

Fellow freshman Duke Dawson started at safety and played well. The two freshmen made plays in Knoxville and should be a big part of the plan in the secondary moving forward.

“Jalen Tabor is going to be a good player,” Muschamp said. “Duke Dawson is going to improve. Duke Dawson understands the importance of practice. Where young players improve the most for me is in practice. Then they’re able to take it to the game. He’s going to be a really good player.”

The changes seemed to give the secondary a much better look than in previous games.

“As much as anything, in the Kentucky game, we lost confidence coverage-wise,” Muschamp said. “The secondary, and I’ve been coaching a long time, is a fragile position. It’s the last line of defense.”

The solution was to simplify things at the line of scrimmage. Muschamp talked about the 2012 game against Tennessee when Florida had players like Valdez Showers, Marcus Roberson, Josh Evans and Matt Elam in the secondary. They were more experienced and able to handle multiple hand signals at the line of scrimmage.

This group isn’t ready for that. They’re too inexperienced and needed things simpler. So the coaching staff changed that in the bye week to help the inexperienced defensive backs play faster.

It was a big help to an offense that struggled to get any moment until the fourth quarter.

“We had to give those guys a big applause,” Florida left tackle D.J. Humphries said of the defense. “They’re the reason why we’re here with this ‘W’ right now. Vern gets that big pick and then (Keanu Neal) gets one to seal the game. That was big time.”

Even with the strong performance, Muschamp cautioned that the defense will be a work in progress, especially with the young secondary. The Gators need more consistency from that group. Saturday was a big win and an impressive bounce back for a team that gave up the most yards in school history during its last game.

“We had two weeks to prepare,” Muschamp said. We're not the '85 Bears. Let's not jump to any conclusions here. We have a long way to go. Athletically, we’re going to be fine. We can’t make mistakes like busting coverages like we did against Alabama and some of the knucklehead things we’ve done.”

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