KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There was one “Oh, No!” moment, as Austin Appleby put it, in his first start at quarterback for Florida Saturday.
Tennessee had just taken its first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter, the crowd inside Neyland Stadium was building into a frenzy and suddenly all the pressure had shifted to the Gators, who had blown a 21-point first-half lead.
On the first play of Florida’s ensuing series, Appleby evaded several defenders in the backfield to buy time. He dodged and turned away from another potential sack, before finally rolling right and trying to force a pass toward that side of the field. It went straight into the hands of Tennessee’s Todd Kelly Jr. The Vols took over at the Gators’ 42 and scored another long touchdown three plays later, pushing the lead to double-digits.
That was the Appleby who many worried about as he took over for injured starter Luke Del Rio — the Appleby who finished his time at Purdue with 19 interceptions to match his 19 touchdowns.
But for most of the game, the Gators got a much sharper version of the quarterback. He connected on three nice deep strikes and had staked Florida to that early three-touchdown lead before the collapse and 38-28 loss to the Vols.
“I thought Austin played pretty darn good for what we asked him to do,” head coach Jim McElwain said.
Appleby finished 23-of-39 passing for 296 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception.
Again, most of the success came in the first half — he was 13-of-23 for 83 yards, 1 late TD and that costly pick after halftime — but the second-half collapse was a collective effort.
The offensive line broke down as the game went along and the Vols’ defense started feeding off the invigorated crowd. The vaunted Florida secondary became a sieve over the final quarter and a half, yielding big play after big play.
And the play-calling looked too conservative after halftime, though McElwain claimed that was not necessarily by design.
“You know, we were a little nervous with protection, I’ll be honest,” he said. “You know, they’ve got a couple guys off the edges that are pretty good. We had some chip plans and that kind of stuff for them.”
Clearly the plans didn’t work as hoped. Add in a bunch of other stuff that didn’t work either and the Gators piled up five three-and-outs and that interception within the span of 6 series as the game slipped away.
“There again, we tried some screens in the second half. They didn’t work. We got flushed from the pocket on a couple of deep ones, but it’s because they did a good job of taking it away,” McElwain said.
Said Appleby: “We were keeping the foot on the gas pedal. We didn’t change the plan at all. We were just going to keep coming out there and doing the things that we were doing. It was just, hats off to that defense.”
It’s not clear how long Del Rio will remain sidelined with his knee injury. He was dressed for the game and was throwing passes with Appleby along the sideline before kickoff, although he didn’t take part in pre-game warmups.
The Gators can win with Appleby at quarterback in the meantime, though — if everything else is working.
The second-half collapse makes it easy to forget that he was pretty effective before halftime.
Appleby’s first pass of the game went for 51 yards to Antonio Callaway on a beautiful deep ball that got the Gators all the way down to the Tennessee 4.
A few plays later, on third-and-goal, Appleby rolled right and had pressure closing in on him quickly, but he maintained his composure and found tight end DeAndre Goolsby in the back of the end zone for a quick touchdown.
Appleby connected with Callaway for a 43-yard completion later in the first quarter, hit running back Jordan Cronkrite on a perfect throwback screen for a 15-yard touchdown early in the second quarter and hooked up with rookie Tyrie Cleveland on a 36-yard strike later in the half that got the Gators down to the Vols’ 4 to set up another score.
“Austin played plenty good enough for us to have a chance,” McElwain said. “We had a good plan coming out after half and they just out-executed us.”
Del Rio may have a greater command of the playbook and offense after spending last year learning the system, while Appleby arrived in January as a graduate transfer from Purdue. Only the coaching staff truly knows how well the quarterback handled his pre-snap responsibilities at the line of scrimmage.
But Appleby wasn’t the problem Saturday.
His interception was very costly, make no mistake about it. It was a poor decision by the quarterback, the kind that can undermine an offense. The pick fed right into the Vols’ ballooning momentum as they seized control of the game.
Appleby wasn’t great after halftime, but as has been the case all fall, the Gators’ offense ebbs and flows with the strength of its protection and blocking up front.
That was the bigger issue against the Vols. Appleby faced heightened pressure in the pocket and got no help from the ground game as Florida managed only 19 rushing yards on 13 carries over the final two quarters.
“Their offense started going, creating a tempo, and they were fitting the run on early downs and we were in a lot of third and medium to long situations where they’re able to dial up some of their pressures or use the four-man rush,” Appleby said. “With the crowd noise, with the snap counts, they were able to get a good jump on it. Hats off to them. They did a really, really good job, and we’ll be OK.
“We’ll make the corrections. We’ve got a lot to watch. We left a lot out there. We still put up 28 in a hostile place. I’m proud of the way our guys fought. I wouldn’t want to be out there with anybody else, but we’ve got a lot to watch, a lot to fix.”
As for his own self-assessment?
“Without watching it, thinking critically, I think there was one ‘Oh-no’ moment. That was where I scrambled around a little bit and tried to make a little bit too much happen on the pick,” he said. “Other than that, I think I did a pretty decent job of standing in there, following the game plan and getting the ball to the open guys. My offense has got the utmost confidence in me.”
Regardless of who is behind center, though, it’s clear the Gators’ offense still has some issues to work through if it’s going to find the consistency it lacked Saturday night — and that it lacked down the stretch last season.
Appleby suggested that maybe a loss like that will make the players realize those issues have been there all along.
“When you’re winning, some things kind of slide underneath the bus and don’t get talked about,” he said. “When you get beat, now everything is in the light and we’re going to really be critical of ourselves and make the corrections that maybe we needed to make three weeks ago moving forward.”