GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Through three quarters in Florida’s win against Tennessee on Saturday, the defense looked stout.
The Gators had given up just 3 points — one mere field goal — had intercepted 2 passes and kept the Volunteers offense more or less at bay.
And then came the fourth quarter, during which all the success nearly withered away as long drives wore down Florida.
“Late in the game, we didn’t tackle worth a hill of beans,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said.
The numbers back that up. After giving up just 211 yards in the first three quarters, Florida’s defense gave up 231 yards in the fourth, allowing 10.5 yards per play and 8 yards per rush. Volunteers running back John Kelly recorded 149 of his 237 total yards in the final quarter, including a 34-yard touchdown run and 52-yard catch-and-run, making multiple defenders miss on each play.
“We started to wear down a little bit,” linebacker David Reese said.
It’s easy to see why. The Florida defense was on the field for 43 plays in the second half. Tennessee won the time-of-possession battle, 20:30 to 9:30.
“The tackling was good the first three quarters of that game,” McElwain said. “I give that running back [credit]. That guy can stiff-arm now. He’s pretty good. But those are everyday drills and you’re able to do them. Just something we have to continue to do.”
So in the days since the win, Florida’s focus heading into its matchup with Kentucky on Saturday has been on proper tackling techniques and finishing plays — again.
After all, the Gators are preparing to facing another quality running back in sophomore Benny Snell and a dual-threat quarterback in Stephen Johnson.
They talked about tackling in team meetings. They harped on it once again on the practice field. Wherever the defense was, tackling became a topic of emphasis.
“We made a big emphasis last week, but now we truly understand how big tackling is,” senior safety Nick Washington said. “This week, starting yesterday and today, we had lots of tackling, wrapping up and bringing guys to the ground.”
Redshirt freshman linebacker Jeremiah Moon said the miscues were more mental than physical and that the defense needs to make more of an effort of keeping the game — especially the running backs — toward the middle of the field.
“We’ve just got to stay contained,” Moon said. “We keep letting guys come outside a lot and that’s making us dive and lunge and all that stuff. So if we play low and not play too high, we’ll be fine with the tackling.”
But the players also said open-field tackling is more than just being able to wrap up a player and bring him to the ground.
“You’ve got to kind of anticipate where you think he’s going to go and know where the pursuit is coming from,” Washington said.
And while the numbers from Saturday aren’t pretty — 442 total yards allowed, 23 first downs, 6.1 yards per play — the defense still made big plays when it mattered.
In the third quarter, when the defense faced first-and-goal from its 5-yard line, cornerback Duke Dawson was involved in three consecutive plays, culminating the sequence with a drive-ending interception.
On Tennessee’s final offensive drive of the game, the Gators forced quarterback Quinten Dormady to throw three consecutive incompletions to force the Volunteers to kick a game-tying field goal.
“We stayed strong when we had our heels against our goal line,” Reese said. “We had to make a stop.”
All told this season, the Gators have allowed just 1 touchdown in seven opponent red-zone trips. The other six trips have ended in 3 made field goals, 2 missed field goals and an interception.
But McElwain wants to see that effort and intensity throughout the game and at all parts of the field, not just inside the 20-yard line.
“Things happen,” Moon said, “but we’ll get it fixed. We’ll get it fixed.”