This time the key was red-zone futility. Tennessee’s defense did just about everything it could to win the game while Tennessee’s offense did just about everything it could to lose it.
Time after time the Vol stop unit made big plays to provide favorable field position. Time after time the Vol attack unit squandered the opportunities. As a result, what should’ve been a comfortable victory wound up being a 10-9 setback.
Cornerback Cameron Sutton intercepted a Jeff Driskel pass to give the Vols possession at their 47-yard line late in the first quarter. The offense picked up two first downs but ultimately settled for a 36-yard Aaron Medley field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin intercepted Driskel on the first play of the third quarter and returned the ball to the Gator 26-yard line. With a half-the-distance-to-the-goal penalty tacked on for a horse-collar tackle, the Vol offense got the ball at Florida’s 13-yard line. Quarterback Justin Worley forced a throw under pressure on first down, however, and the Gators intercepted in the end zone. What should’ve been a Vol touchdown became a Gator touchback.
I truly believe if Tennessee scored there to go up 10-0 the 102,455 Vol fans would’ve cranked up the volume and the Gators would’ve rolled over and played dead. Given the reprieve, Florida managed to keep its poise and its three-point deficit.
Tennessee’s defense tried again to generate a touchdown later in the period—Todd Kelly Jr. intercepting Driskel for a third time and returning 21 yards to the Gator 17-yard line. Incredibly, three plays by the Vol offense lost three yards, leaving the Big Orange to settle for a 38-yard Medley field goal and a 6-0 lead.
Tennessee’s attack finally showed some life in the third quarter, driving from its 32-yard line to a first-and-10 at Florida’s 13. After runs by Jalen Hurd and Marlin Lane netted no gain and minus-one yard, however, Worley was sacked for a seven-yard loss. Medley, Tennessee’s Offensive MVP for the day, booted a 39-yard field goal for a 9-0 lead.
To recap: Three times Tennessee’s defense gave the ball to its offense within 53 yards of the Florida end zone. The offense parlayed these three golden opportunities into six points.
Counting the one time the offense generated a drive of its own, Tennessee made four advances into the red zone. Two touchdowns and two field goals would’ve given the Vols a comfortable 20-0 lead entering the final quarter. Thanks to the ineptitude of Tennessee’s offense, however, the lead was shaky at 9-0 entering the fourth period.
“We kept beating ourselves—penalties, negative-yards plays,” Worley said. “We were living behind the sticks, and it’s hard to recover from that.”
The Vols were “living behind the sticks,” all right. They faced third-and-six yards or more 13 times.
Anyone with active brain cells knows that letting an inferior team hang around is a recipe for disaster. And that was exactly what happened this time. The Gators, given reprieve after reprieve after reprieve, finally scrounged up just enough offense behind backup QB Treon Harris to register two fourth-quarter scores and prevail.
Asked about the Vols’ red-zone futility, head coach Butch Jones said, “We take great pride in scoring touchdowns. We weren’t able to do that, and I think that’s pretty much the story.”
Jones thought Tennessee’s inability to exploit some pass-game matchups was critical.
“We felt we had some really good calls,” he said. “They were in man coverage, and we had all of our man beaters (in the lineup). We knew what they (Gators) were going to be in; we just didn’t execute. No matter what you do schematically, football comes down to one-on-one matchups, and we didn’t execute.”
Tennessee fans showed up convinced this would be the day “The Streak” ended. They’re understandably upset that the Vols’ inability to land a knockout punch allowed a mediocre Florida squad to sneak out of Neyland Stadium with yet another victory.
On a positive note: Fans who paid scalpers $250 or more per ticket outside Neyland Stadium on Saturday can buy an entire row for that amount when the Chattanooga Moccasins visit six days from now.
HURD JOINS STARTING LINEUP
Jalen Hurd made his first start at running back against Florida, giving Tennessee five freshman starters against the Gators. The others were right guard Jashon Robertson, right tackle Coleman Thomas, wide receiver Josh Malone and tight end Ethan Wolf. Counting four freshman who started in previous games – tight end Daniel Helm, safety Todd Kelly Jr., kicker Aaron Medley and defensive end Derek Barnett – nine rookies have started for the Vols through the first five games.
MEDLEY MAKING HIS MARK
Medley went 3 for 3 on field-goal tries Saturday to account for all nine of Tennessee’s points. After starting the season 2 for 4, he has made six consecutive attempts. They weren’t chip shots, either. The lengths were 38, 31, 46, 36, 38 and 39 yards.
NO DRISKEL … NO PROBLEM
For the second year in a row Jeff Driskel contributed to a Florida defeat of Tennessee … by leaving the game.
When Driskel suffered a first-quarter ankle injury last fall in Gainesville backup Tyler Murphy came off the bench and led the Gators to a 31-17 victory. In Saturday’s rematch at Neyland Stadium Driskel was benched with the Gators trailing 9-0 and mere seconds left in the third quarter. This time backup Treon Harris spearheaded a fourth-quarter rally that produced a Gator win.
THIS WON'T SURPRISE YOU
Given how fate seems to favor Florida whenever the Gators and Vols meet, this will come as no surprise to Big Orange fans: Florida kicker Austin Hardin was just 4 of 13 on field-goal tries as a collegian before booting the game-winning 49-yarder with 6:20 left against Tennessee.