Good Fight, But Little Might

Florida 31  Tennessee 17

18 Sep 2010 | Neyland Stadium | 102,455

Recap | Boxscore | Play-by-play | Drive Chart

Tennessee brought a 60-minute game to the Florida Gators Saturday afternoon, but in the end, it was an audacious call by Urban Meyer, and Florida’s ability to continually respond to the Vols’ best efforts, that led the Gators to a win in the SEC opener for both schools.

Fan support for the Vols on Saturday against the Florida Gators provided a great atmosphere for this great rivalry. Photo by Michael Patrick.

Tennessee played with verve and fire and was backed by a boisterous, supportive crowd on a perfect afternoon for Southern football. Unfortunately, some characteristics from last week reared their ugly head again today. For starters, the Vols continued their lackluster performance on third down, converting on only 2 of the 13 situations, whereas the Gators were a stellar 8 for 14, many of which felt like crucial moments in the game. Also, Tennessee was mistake-prone with 9 infractions called for 54 yards, not including some poor decision-making and errant throws to open receivers by QB Matt Simms. Additionally, the Vols were guilty of 3 turnovers – 2 fumbles lost and 1 crucial INT in the end zone that prevented Tennessee from capitalizing on a Florida turnover.

But what was perhaps surprising was the Vols’ ineptitude with the ground game. Both teams were impotent in the first half, but it was the Gators that got their running game going in the second half. The Vols remained stuck in neutral for the entire match, gaining a paltry 29 yards, including only 23 yards on 10 carries by Tauren Poole, the SEC’s leading rusher.

The Vol offensive line basically wore out and suffered injuries, being overmatched by the Gator front line (as evidenced by the rushing stats), and allowed six sacks of Simms.

Another disappointing aspect of the Vols’ game was field position. Florida was able to start their 13 possessions at the 40 yard line or better 7 times, some due to poor kickoffs and inadequate coverage. Tennessee started inside their 10 on five occasions.

The Vols didn’t get beat by big plays from Jeffrey Demps or anybody else. Florida was instead an efficient team in the second half, and also calculatingly lucky with a fake punt at exactly the right time to steal precious momentum from the Vols. And, whoever thought that the Vols’ had to win the time-of-possession metric in order to win were probably right, for the Gators won that yardstick with a 37-to-23 minute advantage.

In the end, there was plenty of excitement at the old yard with the Vols putting up a good fight, but unfortunately they had little might that was needed to upset their hated rivals.

*****

The first half was trench warfare – a real slogger. The odd thing is that it wasn’t raining on a muddy field – a beautiful late summer afternoon with sun and temperatures in the 80’s.

The running game was a disaster for both teams, with Florida gaining 19 yards on 19 carries, and Tennessee acquiring 17 yards on 15 carries. The Vols’ Tauren Poole, the SEC’s leading rusher going into the contest, had 3 net yards on 7 carries.

Florida's Jonathan Bostic (52) comes down with the ball intended for Tennessee's Da'Rick Rogers (21). Photo by Michael Patrick.

Each team had a turnover. With Tennessee gaining an early lead on a 49-yard field goal by Daniel Lincoln, followed by the Gators instantly responding with a touchdown, Florida fumbled a punt in its own territory. But when Tennessee got the ball inside the 5 after a long pass play from Matt Simms to Zach Rogers, they could not convert. Simms’ pass was intercepted by Jonathan Bostic in the end zone as Simms’ throw was too low for Dooley’s taste.

The Gator passing attack in the first half was little to write home about, but the Vols’ air attack was not either. Simms passed 6-for-11 and 83 yards, 33 on the completion to Zach Rogers just before the INT. Without establishing any semblance of a pass attack, the possibilities of any running game seemed impossible against a very fine Gator defense.

One thing that was noticeable was Tennessee’s energy. Feeding off the large crowd, the Vols looked like they were here to play for the entire 60 minutes, and unlike last week’s breakdown right before the half to let Oregon equalize, Tennessee kept the game in check with the first half winding down, not allowing the Gators to get the ball until last couple of minutes at their own 19 yard line.

Wow. Down 7-3 at the break, I think most Vol fans had to admit they were a bit surprised – down only four in a low-scoring affair was, frankly speaking, a complete shock. But heading into the second half, knowing the Gators had outscored their first two opponents in the second half by 44 to 13, and the Vols getting whipped last week by the Ducks 35-0 in the last two quarters, our prospects didn’t look as bright as a 7-3 score suggested.

*****

If the first half was a bit of a bore, the second half was anything but.

Florida received the half’s opening kickoff and marched 10 plays, setting up a 44-yard field goal to get the Gators up 7 at 10-3. Now the thought was how the Vols would respond. Tauren Poole gained six yards on a run, Simms hit Justin Hunter for 16 more, and then Simms found Denarius Moore on a nifty rout for 49 yards and a Tennessee touchdown.

Tennessee 10 Florida 10, and Neyland Stadium lit up like it should against their biggest division rival. Ball game on!

Behind 100,000 chanting ‘defense’, the Vols held the Gators on third and six. Momentum had an orange-and-white checkerboard look to it. Instead, ready to receive a punt, the Gators pulled out a part of Florida football that should never be underestimated – a fake punt. Omarius Hines, lined up in the short backfield for punter protection, instead took the snap directly and rambled 36 yards to the Tennessee 25 yard line. So, instead of the Vols getting the ball in their own territory, the Gators had it, and it felt like a turnover. Now, Urban Meyer was 8-for-8 on career fake punts, and it was hard to hate him.

Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms is sacked by Florida defenders. Simms was sacked six times. Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Then, right away, on 3rd and 8 at the Vol 23, John Brantley hit Carl Moore for 14 yards for a third yard conversion that was a hallmark of this Gator win – their ability to convert on big 3rd downs. Right away, on another big third down, this time third and goal at the seven, Brantley hit Frankie Hammond, Jr. in the endzone, and the Gators had answered Tennessee’s strike with one of their own.

Reminiscent of Oregon’s 14-point scoring stretch within only a few second half minutes last week, the Gators got the ball back after the Vols could only get one first down, and in 5 plays, Florida scored on a Mike Gillislee run.

Suddenly it was Florida 24 Tennessee 10, and you wondered if this was last week all over again. Tennessee had, mostly with sheer effort, made it anybody’s game into the third quarter, only to have their opponent score 14 quick points. Would the Vols get down on themselves again and let it affect their play?

After the Vols went three-and-out to open the fourth quarter – Simms barely escaping a safety when illegally grounding the ball near the goal line – Florida found themselves at midfield trying to kill off the contest. But sprinter/running back Jeffrey Demps was stripped of the ball by Vol LB Austin Johnson, and after a video review overturned the call on the field, all of a sudden Tennessee had the ball at midfield, down 14, and plenty of time to mount a comeback. The next possession was full of drama.

For the Vols to win, the Vols had to run. Tennessee's ground game amassed only 29 yards. Photo by Michael Patrick

On second down, Tauren Poole did his best Montario Hardesty impression by turning a one-yard gain into a 12-yard plow for a first down. Then, after a holding call on the offensive line, a couple of bad passes by Simms, and a delay of game penalty, the end of the afternoon was staring the Vols squarely in the face. On a 3rd-and-25, Simms hit TE Luke Stocker for a very important 20-yard gain, giving the Vols a chance at a fourth down conversion.

When Simms rolled out and then faced pressure from the Gator line, he seemed to throw the ball as hard as he could to escape the worst. He did get slammed into the ground, but at the other end was freshman beanpole Justin Hunter who calmly caught the ball with his hands, and the Vols were suddenly back in it, down 24-17, and making everybody forget last week’s meltdown sandwich.

Anything seemed possible.

But as Florida seemed to do all afternoon, they answered Tennessee’s knock on the door with – yet another drive starting with very good field possession – nine plays and 60 yards for a TD with 5 minutes to close out the game at 31-17.

Done and done.

*****

More hard work for Dooley and Company. There certainly were signs of improvement, but this program is a long way from giving the Vol Nation a trip somewhere during bowl game season.

A caller on the Vol Network post-game show likened our situation to building a house. We’re laying the foundation, and that is the most important part for the future. Once completed, it will be a beautiful home. But right now, we are in need of a lot of materials and workers – and very patient and supportive fans.

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