"We definitely dealt with adversity a lot better than we did a week ago," quarterback Matt Simms said.
That's true. A 35-yard touchdown pass from Simms to Justin Hunter narrowed the gap to 24-17 with 11:24 to go. Tennessee's ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, however, and a weary Vol defense surrendered a nine-play, 60-yard touchdown drive that sealed a 31-17 Gator victory.
"I was proud of how we competed," said Vol head coach Derek Dooley, who accused his team of giving up one week earlier. "We had a ton of adversity – more than we ever need in a football game. Because of the fact we kept swinging, we were sitting there in the fourth quarter and it was a seven-point game."
Simms completed 19 of 31 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns but also threw two costly interceptions, including one in the end zone when Tennessee was down just 7-3 in the second quarter. Tailback Tauren Poole lost a fumble at the end of a 31-yard catch/run in the fourth quarter.
"When we look back on the game, it starts with the fact we didn't win the turnover battle," Dooley said. "We spit the ball up three times, and we'll never win doing that."
Poole entered the game as the SEC rushing leader, averaging 136.0 yards per game. He managed just 23 yards on 10 carries in this game, however. Backup David Oku had 24 yards on five rushes. As a team the Vols managed just 29 net rushing yards on 23 attempts.
"We couldn't run it a lick," Dooley grumbled, "and we'll never win doing that."
The Vols won't win going 2-for-13 on third-down conversions, either, especially when they allow their opponent to go 8-for-14.
"We couldn't get off (the field) on third down on defense," Dooley noted. "We never could affect the quarterback, never could get in his face. They blocked us, and we couldn't hold up in coverage. That was the difference in the game."
Despite blitzing on several occasions, the Vols managed just one sack. Conversely, Florida exploited Tennessee's youthful offensive line for six sacks. First-team center Cody Pope (stinger, concussion) missed the game, forcing sophomore Darin Gooch to start at center. Redshirt freshman JerQuari Schofield was injured in the first half, forcing true freshman James Stone to play the entire second half at left guard.
Florida moves to 3-0. The Vols, now 1-2, will try to get back on the winning track this Saturday against visiting UAB.
Poor field position killed Tennessee early. A holding penalty on the opening kickoff forced the Vols to start possession No. 1 at their 9-yard line. Florida downed a punt at the 1-yard line, forcing Tennessee to start its second possession three feet from its own goal line.
The Vol defense finally flipped the field, linebacker Nick Reveiz stopping Mike Gillislee for no gain on a fourth-and-one at Tennessee's 43-yard line. The Vols promptly drove to a 49-yard Daniel Lincoln field goal and a 3-0 lead with 1:17 left in the opening quarter.
Florida answered immediately, however, as Jeff Demps returned the ensuing kickoff 43 yards. Tennessee was assessed a 15-yard face mask penalty on the runback, giving the Gators the ball at the UT 42-yard line. Florida found the end zone nine plays later, Gillislee plunging in from two yards out to give the visitors a 7-3 lead with 11:49 left in Quarter No. 2.
Tennessee advanced to the Florida 3-yard line midway through the period but Simms was intercepted by linebacker Jonathan Bostic in the middle of the end zone on third-and-goal to snuff the threat.
A 44-yard Caleb Sturgis field goal extended Florida's lead to 10-3 early in the third period but Tennessee answered three plays later when a perfectly thrown 49-yard strike from Simms to Denarius Moore tied the score at 10.
With the crowd roaring and Tennessee's confidence soaring, Florida coach Urban Meyer turned to some trickery. A fake punt on fourth-and-six at the Gator 39-yard line resulted in a 36-yard gain. The Gators went up 17-10 six plays later on a seven-yard pass from John Brantley to Frankie Hammond.
"I take responsibility," Dooley said of Tennessee's failure to defend the fake punt. "It was a good call by them. They hadn't run a fake in a long time. We weren't in ‘safe' (defenders hold their positions until the punter kicks). Looking back, we should've been in safe."
Simms threw his second interception on the ensuing possession, and Florida zoomed 40 yards in five plays to go up 24-10 with 12 seconds left in the third quarter.
Vol linebacker Austin Johnson stripped the ball from Demps on Florida's next possession, giving Tennessee the ball at midfield. The Vols scored six plays later when Simms found Hunter wide open for the 35-yard TD pass that whittled the deficit to 24-17.
Brantley finished 14 of 23 for 167 yards. Demps managed just 73 rushing yards on 26 carries. The Gators finished with just 317 total yards on 72 plays. Tennessee, however, managed just 288 yards on 54 plays.
Although the Vols showed some heart by rallying when they trailed by 14 points in the fourth quarter, Dooley took very little consolation in that.
"I'm proud of ‘em for that but that's what we should do every game," he said. "That's kind of a bottom-line standard. All that does is give you a chance."