Sounds weird to say it but Tennessee is simply a better football team when its back is against the wall.
The No. 14-ranked Volunteers appeared to be in an abysmal state, trailing No. 19 Florida less than 20 minutes into Saturday’s showdown between Southeastern Conference Eastern Division rivals.
That’s about when the light came on. Tennessee punched in five touchdowns and an Aaron Medley field goal to electrify its checkered sellout crowd in a 38-28 win.
“I hope you guys understand the resolve and the resiliency of this football team,” fourth-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said, “and the local media outta understand that. We have something special here.”
It was the Vols’ first victory over their SEC foe after an 11-game skid. Tennessee now has 10 consecutive wins dating back to last season, including a 4-0 overall mark this year and 1-0 in the SEC. It’s their longs streak this century.
The 21-point comeback tied for the third-largest in Tennessee history.
"We scored 38 straight points,” Jones said. “Again, we're talking about starting fast. In the second half we had an interception and after that we scored five out of six touchdowns. We held them to 102 yards in the second half and three-and-out in every single possession but one.”
Florida (3-1, 1-1) scored on passes from first-time starter Austin Appleby to DeAndre Goolsby (3 yards) and Jordan Cronkite (15) before Jordan Scarlett’s 1-yard dive into the end zone with 5:12 left in the second quarter. That staked the visitors to a 21-0 advantage and they outgained the Vols 300-162 in the opening half.
The Gators didn’t score for another 30 minutes, 55 seconds. First-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s bunch adjusted and allowed just 102 second-half yards and just two third-down conversions over the final two quarters.
"I think it's just following the process of making plays,” Jones said. “Like I said, we did some things, that wasn't us the first half, some uncharacteristic things as a football team. We challenged them a little bit at halftime but they knew and they came out.
“I thought Derek Barnett took the game over. I thought Derek Barnett was outstanding in his leadership and his energy that he brought to our sideline and to the defense. I thought our entire football team fed off of him. Then obviously, T.K.'s big interception and to be able to cash that in for seven, that was big down the stretch."
Barnett had five tackles (3 solo) with three tackles for loss and two sacks, which moved him to fifth on Tennessee’s all-time list. Colton Jumper, who entered the starting lineup a week ago with Darrin Kirkland Jr. (ankle) injuries, led the Vols with eight tackles.
Backs, receivers and tight ends did quarterback Joshua Dobbs no favor in the first half with more drops (5) than they had in the previous 10 games combined. Like every other position group, the pass catchers rebounded and Dobbs finished 16-of-32 passing for 319 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
"We have tremendous faith and confidence in them,” Jones said. “We see it every single day. They've done a great job of catching the football. We haven't had a lot of drops this season. We've seen it. For whatever reason it happened, but in the second half it didn't. That was the difference in the game. We were able to throw the football against a really good defense, and we were able to protect."
Jauan Jennings had his finest statistical games in orange, catching three passes for 111 yards and one TD, which was a 67-yarder for Tennessee’s go-ahead score that came in the fourth quarter. Josh Malone pulled in four passes for 91 yards with one TD (42). Hurd reeled on a 25-yard pitch-and-catch for the Vols' first trip to the end zone. Ethan Wolf made the most out of his one catch, stretching on the checkerboard for a 20-yard TD.
The rushing yards tend to point to the winner in the Florida-Tennessee series. Saturday followed suit as the Vols netted 170 ground yards on 46 attempts with Jalen Hurd netting 95 on 26 carries. Florida finished with 106 yards on 31 rushes.
Appleby threw for 296 yards and three scores on 23-of-39 passing with Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr. logging the home team’s lone interception.