GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida linebacker David Reese threw out a very specific stat Wednesday while discussing what the Gators defense hopes to show this weekend.
“The last two games we had 78 missed tackles against Tennessee, so just this game period we’re going to have to wrap up,” he said.
Wait, 78? Really?
“Seventy-eight tackles was brought to our attention yesterday before practice,” safety Chauncey Gardner Jr. said. “The past two years we had guys that were first-rounders that [were] missing tackles, too. Just knowing that guys that went first round were missing tackles, you [have to] wrap up and just bring them to the ground.”
Said cornerback Duke Dawson: “You would think 78 tackles would be missed in more than just two games. We have to really be hard on ourselves about tackling this game — any game, really, but just knowing that we missed 78 tackles in two games, that’s not good.”
No, indeed not. And it’s clearly a point of emphasis the coaches want resonating with the defense heading into No. 24 Florida’s SEC opener Saturday against No. 23 Tennessee in The Swamp.
In the 2015 meeting between the teams, the Gators trailed by 13 points late into the fourth quarter before scoring 2 touchdowns in the final 4 minutes, 9 seconds to pull out a 28-27 win. The Vols rushed for 254 yards and averaged 5 yards per carry in that game.
Last season, of course, it was Tennessee pulling off the impressive comeback, scoring 38 straight points on the way to a 38-28 win in Knoxville, Tenn.
Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon said the Gators spent two days in practice focused on tackling drills leading up to this meeting with the Vols.
“Because that was a big deal the last two years playing Tennessee, the tackling. Trying to go for the kill shots, the big hit, the crowd going ‘Yeah!’ They may go ‘Yeah,’ but all of a sudden the guy keeps running,” he said. “So we weren’t the sure tackles. If it’s a 1-yard gain, it’s going to be a 1-yard gain. If it’s going to be a 2-yard gain, it will be a 2-yard gain.”
Missed tackles weren’t the only lesson to take away from that painful collapse, though.
“Complacent is the first thing that jumps in my mind,” Dawson said. “We all got complacent going into halftime because we were up. Now that we know what it takes, everyone is locked in and mentally prepared.”
That goes for the offense as well.
Florida was up 21-0 late in the second quarter of that game, riding a big first half from backup quarterback Austin Appleby. He connected on some deep shots downfield to open up the offense and help build that substantial lead. Then the Gators went hyper-conservative the rest of the way, leaving the door wide open for the Vols to seize control.
“If we continue what we’ve been doing, just go out there and if we’re going to throw bombs, throw bombs,” Gardner said. “If we’re going to continue to blitz, continue to blitz. Just do what we got to do. Do what we did in the first half in the second half. Keep applying constant pressure and we’ll win the game. That’s all it is.”
That’s a sentiment with which most Gators fans who watched the game last season would surely agree.
As for the defense, though, the point on the missed tackles does seem especially relevant.
Florida yielded 215 rushing yards to Michigan in the opener and is 3-7 under coach Jim McElwain when giving up more than 200 yards on the ground.
The Gators now face a Tennessee team led by one of the SEC’s most efficient running backs in 5-foot-9 junior John Kelly, who averaged 6.7 yards on 19 carries (128 yards, 4 touchdowns) in Week 1 against Georgia Tech. He averaged 6.4 yards per attempt last season.
Not giving the Vols yards they don’t earn has been a major point of emphasis for the Florida defense this week, and if 78 missed tackles in the last two meetings with Tennessee is really the number, then that’s indeed a good place to start.
“It’s a big emphasis. Like I said, 78 is a big number. That’s the breaking point of winning the game or losing the game,” Reese said. “In two games, that’s a lot, but we had 15 NFL players on those two teams. It doesn’t go out to the players. We’ve just got to come to play. It’s a statement.”
Said Gardner: “Emotions are going to be high. You know, rivalry game, lost last year. Everybody’s going, ‘Oh, get ’em back, get ’em back.’ But the more we’re focused on getting them back, the more missed tackles occur. You just got to go out there and just play ball. And treat it as another game — but a big game for us — so just go win the game.”