KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — This was supposed to be the game Florida’s defense validated its stingy stat line and dominant destruction of its first three opponents.
Junior cornerback Quincy Wilson said as much earlier in the week, acknowledging the perception the Gators hadn’t been tested yet.
Well, the Gators would get their test Saturday at No. 14 Tennessee, and through the first two-and-a-half quarters, they were acing it.
How it went so wrong the rest of the game still is to be dissected and scrutinized, but regardless, Florida’s defense now has plenty to prove if it wants to be regarded among the country’s best this season.
“(We’re) definitely humbled,” Wilson said. “We’ve just got to come out next week and make the corrections on film and come out and win next week.”
At halftime, No. 19 Florida was ahead 21-3 in large part because of the defense.
An Antonio Callaway fumble while trying to secure a fair catch on a punt set up Tennessee at the Gators’ 2 in the first quarter. The defense barely budged, though, ultimately denying the Vols on fourth-and-goal from the 1 as redshirt senior safety Marcus Maye knocked away a pass.
In the second quarter, Wilson picked off Josh Dobbs in the end zone on a third-down play that started at the Gators’ 7.
Junior cornerback Jalen Tabor added a pick on the opening series of the second half, and it would take the Vols until midway through the third quarter to finally find the end zone.
Then, it all fell apart — in stunning fashion.
The same Florida defense that did all that, the same Gators that came into the day leading the country while holding opponents to just 129.7 yards per game, looked lost.
Dobbs, who was 7 of 20 passing for 84 yards and an interception in the first half, went 9 of 12 for 235 yards, 4 touchdowns and an interception after halftime. He added 41 rushing yards (for a total of 80) and a touchdown during the final two quarters, as well.
The Vols scored 38 straight points — thirty-eight — with all but three coming in the second half.
They scored on a 23-yard wheel route to wide-open running back Jalen Hurd. They scored on a 67-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings down the sideline after Tabor slipped. They scored on a 42-yard pass to Josh Malone, who found a hole in the defense over the middle and never stopped running.
“I think maybe as a team we got a little content that we (were) up 21-3 at the half,” Wilson said. “I don’t know, we started feeling like we could get away with not doing what we were doing to get up how we were up.”
He added that there were communication breakdowns. Redshirt junior linebacker Alex Anzalone offered similar sentiments, noting the breakdowns were more mental than physical.
“I know we had a lot of unforced errors and a lot of things that we need to clean up and a lot of mental errors, and I think that’s the biggest thing,” he said.
The wheel route to Hurd was one he addressed specifically.
“That’s an example of a busted coverage or mental error. You could probably watch the film and see a couple of those, more than we’d like,” Anzalone said.
For his part, head coach Jim McElwain started by praising Dobbs, his resiliency and how “he was not to be denied tonight.”
As for the issues within his own defense, he suggested he needed to see the tape.
“It wasn’t a bunch that we didn’t see before. But there were some formational things and some motion things that were different than what they had done, but that’s what you do in every game,” McElwain said. “That’s where your rules and your discipline in how you play your position and how you do your job come in. We’ll see on film.”
Overreaction is an easy reflex.
The Gators offense did the defense no favors in the second half with five three-and-outs and a costly interception within the span of six straight series. That takes a toll. That wears on a defense — especially late in a game.
That doesn’t explain 35 second-half points, but it didn’t help.
This Florida defense still is very good. Wilson and Tabor still are as good a pairing of cornerbacks as any in the country. Anzalone and fellow veteran linebacker Jarrad Davis are going to leave their imprint on plenty of moments and games the rest of the way.
And those stingy numbers the Gators defense produced while allowing all of 14 points during the first three weeks were a testament to more than just overmatched competition.
Maybe they’re not as good as they looked in holding North Texas to 53 yards, but they aren’t anywhere close to as bad as they looked after halftime Saturday.
They had a bad half, and it exposed more vulnerabilities than might have been previously assumed.
If Dobbs, who is not known for being a game-changing passer, can do what he did over the final one-and-a-half quarters, then the Gators are susceptible to it happening again down the road if they don’t address the communication issues or focus issues or whatever issues that contributed to the collapse.
More significant than what anyone else learned about the Florida defense Saturday, though, is what the players took away from it.
“Just learn from this,” Anzalone said. “… Just having this draw us closer together and just being a better team from it. Coach Mac mentioned it could humble a lot of guys. I think that’s good for our team, even though it had to happen like this.”
That’ll depend on how they respond next week and in the remaining tough tests down the road.