A pattern is emerging in this young season for the Florida Gators: they play teams fairly even in the first half and then take the game from the opponent in the second. It happened in College Station last week, and it happened in Knoxville this week to the tune of 37-20.
In that first half, Florida looked to be in big trouble against Tyler Bray and the Tennessee passing attack. Florida's undersized defensive backs were either committing penalties against or getting toasted by Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, and Mychal Rivera. Rajion Neal ran it well enough to keep UF's defense off balance, and it seemed like the Gators were fortunate to be down just 14-10 at the half.
Caleb Sturgis kicked a field goal on Florida's first second half drive to pull the team within one, but Tennessee answered with a touchdown on a long drive that felt like its successful drives in the first half. The PAT clanged off of the upright, but Tennessee was getting touchdowns while Florida was kicking field goals. The Vols were still in good shape.
After the teams exchanged punts, Trey Burton made the play of the game that swung momentum irrevocably in the Gators' favor. On the first play of the drive, he took the snap and made Marsalis Teague look bad on an 80 yard touchdown run down the back sideline. Matt Elam intercepted Bray on the next drive, and the Gator offense made them pay with a 22-yard TD pass from Jeff Driskel to Jordan Reed. The margin was only 27-20 in Florida's favor, but it seemed bigger than that. Bray's accuracy began to disappear, the receivers began dropping passes, and Frankie Hammond put the game away with a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Bray was 22/44 for 257 yards with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions each. Driskel was 14/20 with 219 yards and two touchdowns, and he ran for 81 yards on 10 carries. An occasionally gimpy Mike Gillislee was the game's leading rusher with 113 yards on 18 carries, while Neal ground out 87 yards on 23 carries. Hunter had 76 yards on five catches and Patterson had 75 yards on eight catches to lead the Vols. Hammond's 75-yarder was his only reception but still led Florida, while Reed was right behind with 60 yards on five catches.
Florida's new coaching hires really shone tonight. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease called a brilliant game from the booth. OL coach Tim Davis's line paved the way for 336 yards rushing on 43 carries, and with a big assist to a more decisive Driskel, they surrendered no sacks after allowing eight a week ago. Strength coach Jeff Dillman saw his players once again outclass the opponent in the second half and especially fourth quarter. Will Muschamp appears to have made the right decisions when retooling his staff.
For Florida, it was an eighth straight win over Tennessee, and it set a new post-Mullen/Harvin high in offense. It was the Gators' first time with more than 500 total yards (555 tonight) against an SEC team not named Kentucky since rolling up 519 on South Carolina in 2008.
For Tennessee, it's a crushing loss. ESPN's College GameDay was in town, Vegas had them favored, and it was the first Neyland Stadium sellout in four years. They were ready for their big breakthrough win and a sign that they were a real SEC East contender for the first time since 2007. Instead, the wheels came off in the third quarter as Florida reeled off big plays and Tennessee lost the ability to make big plays themselves.
Florida certainly isn't back to its heights from Urban Meyer's glory days, but the team has some real fight in it and will find ways to compete. Tennessee is going back to the drawing board, wondering what caused things to go sour so quickly and how to get back off the mat once again.