Vols Falter

Tennessee didn't lay an egg at Florida. It laid two.

The Vols' special teams stunk.

The Vols' offense stunk.

If you didn't know better, you'd have thought Tennessee traveled on the day of the game to The Swamp ? and arrived 2 minutes before kickoff.

OK, that's unfair to the defense, which played outstanding in the 16-7 defeat despite some botched third-and-long conversions by Florida. John Chavis' unit held Florida to less than 250 total yards and was put in several untenable situations.

In truth, Tennessee's defense allowed 10 points ? and 80-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter in which the Gators had consecutive plays of 17, 14, 17 and 18 yards, and a 16-play, 68-yard field-goal march that consumed 7:42.

And the defensive certainly played well enough to win. Under coach Phillip Fulmer, the Vols were 3-0 when holding Florida to less than 23 points. Make that 3-1.

After Florida's touchdown march, the Gators managed just two first downs on their next five series.

Two of Florida's third-quarter field goals were set up by special team screwups. Jonathan Hefney fumbled a punt early in the third quarter and Dustin Colquitt faked a punt minutes later to give Florida the ball on the UT 28 and 31, respectively.

Those were not the only two blunders by UT's special teams. Colquitt added an 8-yard punt after his fake punt. Florida blocked a field-goal attempt. A UT kickoff went out of bounds. Of lesser importance, the Vols had just 16 yards on two punt returns and 51 yards on four kickoff returns.

``We had a meltdown with the kicking game, which is my fault," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.

Tennessee also had a meltdown with the offensive game, which is Randy Sanders' fault. Tennessee's offensive coordinator had one of his worst outings as UT's play caller. The Vols, supposedly blessed with weapons all over the field, managed just 213 total yards, 66 rushing. They had only two drives with more than two first downs. They converted 3 of 13 third downs.

In short, it was ugly, about as ugly as the 9-6 loss to Alabama in 1990.

No doubt, Florida's defense is improved over last year. The Gators have more speed and a better scheme. Still, this was basically the same defense that Tennessee, with two true freshmen quarterbacks, torched for four 80-yard touchdowns last season in a 30-28 victory at Neyland Stadium.

Florida played most of the way without its best defensive player, end Ray McDonald, who was injured with 14 minutes left in the first half and never returned. Yet, the Vols couldn't take advantage, averaging just 3.5 yards per play.

Maybe the big difference was Greg Mattison, Florida's co-defensive coordinator. He was Notre Dame's defensive line coach last year when the Irish held UT to just 58 yards on 39 rushes.

One truism about this series remained spot on. The team that wins the rushing battle wins the game. That has now held true in 14 of the last 16 games. Florida outrushed Tennessee 68-66 ? not by much, but just enough. But this game wasn't really won by the best rushing team.

It was lost by the team with the worst special teams and worst offense. On the blocked 37-yard field-goal attempt, Fulmer said the snap came too soon. On the fake punt, Fulmer said he didn't communicate well enough with freshman punter Britton Colquitt and left it at that. Did Colquitt run the fake without approval? Was he taught to throw to the gunner if the defender left his post? Who knows?

The Colquitt fake wasn't as big as two other faux pas.

The blocked field goal came at a time when the Vols were clicking on offense. An apparent completion to the 1-yard line on third-and-18 was correctly overruled by replay officials. Without replay, UT probably scores a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead. Having the field goal blocked ? Urban Meyer 's Utah team blocked nine kicks last year ? was a punch to the gut. A 10-7 lead could have been a big momentum swing.

The next biggest play was Hefney's fumbled punt. At the time, UT had just stuffed the Florida offense again and the crowd was dead. The Hefney turnover changed that. It led to a Florida field goal, a 10-7 lead and an awakened fan base.

Tennessee's offense never got in sync in the second half. It appeared Erik Ainge, who replaced Rick Clausen in the third series, would have a big game. On UT's second-quarter scoring drive, Ainge was six of seven passing for 64 yards. But for the rest of the game, he was eight of 22 for 83 yards. He seldom passed over the middle. And once, he had a tight end wide open beyond the linebackers for what would have been a score but he underthrew and was almost intercepted by linebacker Brandon Siler.

``When we ran good routes, we threw a bad pass," Ainge said. ``When we threw a good pass, we ran bad routes."

Maybe it was that simple. Or maybe UT's receivers are highly overrated. Sanders said Florida played man-to-man coverage more than 80 percent of the time. How many times did you see a Vol wideout beat press coverage? Burn his man? Make a big play?

``As much man as they played," Ainge said, ``we've got to win those battles. I thought we did a pretty good job up front (offensive line) but the quarterbacks and wide receivers didn't get the job done."

To win, Tennessee needed Gerald Riggs Jr. to have as many carries as quarterbacks had pass attempts. Riggs had 17 carries (for 86 yards). UT attempted 35 passes. That imbalance underscored UT's inability to move the ball.

And, in the minds of UT fans, put a huge target on the back of Randy Sanders.

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