"We're disappointed in the loss," the Vol coach said on post-game radio. "This is a game we expected to come in here and win. I thought our plan was very good and I thought our players played extremely hard. We should've won today but I am excited about the way they rallied."
Already leading 23-6, Florida appeared ready to break the game open when it drove to the UT 13-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Gator superstar Tim Tebow fumbled at the end of an eight-yard run, however, and the ball bounced to Vol safety Dennis Rogan, who returned the bobble 34 yards to the UT 37-yard line.
The Vol defense forced a three-and-out by Florida and Tennessee got the ball back at its 22-yard line with 6:01 to play. The Vols advanced to midfield but safety Ahmad Black intercepted a fourth-and-six pass at the Gator 26-yard line to seal the deal.
Vol safety Eric Berry showed why he's an All-America by coming up big in the big game. The talented junior recorded 11 tackles (9 solo) and a clutch interception of Tebow. He also tackled Tebow twice for losses.
"Eric was all over the place; he lined up and played a number of different spots today," Kiffin said. "But it was a group effort. You have to have all 11 guys to have a chance against these guys (Gators)."
Hardesty also was heroic in defeat, rushing 20 times for 96 yards.
UT quarterback Jonathan Crompton threw two interceptions - pushing his season total to seven in three games - but generally managed the offense well. He finished 11 of 19 for 93 yards.
Tennessee's plan was simple: Run the ball to eat up the clock, protect Crompton and keep Florida's offense off the field. That plan worked well enough to keep the Vols in the game but not quite well enough to win it.
"We thought we had to control the clock," Kiffin said. "They are a dynamic offense with a bunch of playmakers. They were No. 1 in the country coming in in total offense and scoring offense. We had to slow the game down.
"We had to run the ball between the tackles. We felt we could move them a little bit off the ball, which we did early on. We had some success and really slowed the game down."
A Florida offense that was averaging 643 yards per game and more than 10 yards per play managed just 323 yards and 5.1 per play against a scrappy Tennessee defense.
Florida converted on 8 of 13 third-down plays, punted just once all game and kept the ball for 32:40 to Tennessee's 27:20. Tebow completed 14 of 19 passes but gained a mere 115 yards. He also led Florida rushers with 76 yards on 24 carries.
"I think we pretty much shut down everybody except for Superman, number 15," Kiffin said, referring to Tebow. "He had to work to make his plays. It's not like there were these big holes to run through. He had to make a number of guys miss, run guys over to be able to make first downs. He had a great game but I thought we shut him down otherwise."
The Vols will try to bounce back a week from today, when they host Ohio University.