KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – When I was in middle school, I had to drop off my books at my assigned table, go stand in line to buy lunch, then come back to the table to eat. There was a bully at my table who enjoyed tormenting me by smashing french fries in my books while I was in line.
This ticked me off but I was always too intimidated by him to do anything about it.
One day I finally had enough. I raced downstairs to the cafeteria and was first in line. I proceeded to smash french fries in every single page of his math book. He found me after school and shoved me. I responded and shoved him so hard he fell over. Then I stood over him making it clear he didn’t intimidate me anymore.
He never bothered me again.
On Saturday afternoon, the Gators were exposed as a bully.
Tennessee spent the first half being intimidated. They opened the game with a stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. They got beat deep repeatedly. They killed offensive drives with drops and turnovers. They got booed by the home crowd after running out the second quarter clock down 21-3.
In the third quarter, they pushed back.
They pushed back to make it 21-10 on a 23-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Hurd on a busted coverage by Duke Dawson. They pushed back to make it 21-17 on a beautiful 20-yard touchdown strike to tight end Ethan Wolf over star linebacker Jarrad Davis.
Still, I was optimistic. I tweeted the following going into the fourth quarter.
If you would've told #Gators fans they'd be up 4 going into the 4th this morning, we would've taken it.
— Will Miles (@WillMilesSEC) September 24, 2016
Then the Volunteers pushed until the Gators collapsed, both literally and figuratively, as Jalen Tabor slipped on a 67-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings that gave the Vols a 24-21 lead.
The Gators never bothered them again.
The Florida defense – which spent all week woofing about how Florida doesn’t lose to Tennessee – was dominant in the first half. They then proceeded to give up 336 yards and 35 points in the second half.
The Florida offense – which couldn’t be stopped in the first half – was reduced to 1-yard runs and 3-yard passes in the second half. They gained eight total yards in the decisive third quarter while Tennessee roared back.
Some people are going to blame Austin Appleby. That’s absolutely wrong. He outperformed his track record significantly (QB rating of 143.0 vs. 108.3 career) and only made one mistake. He played better than I expected and should not be blamed for this loss.
Some people are going to blame the Gators coaching staff. There is perhaps some credence to the idea that the game plan was too conservative in the second half. But they couldn’t be aggressive because the offensive line couldn’t block anybody, run or pass.
That means we should blame the offensive line, right? I don’t think that’s really fair, as Appleby’s white jersey was completely clean while building the 21-0 lead. That unit is clearly not the strength of the team.
No, the blame here needs to fall squarely on the defense. The communication in the secondary was dreadful. There was no pressure on Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs. Big play after big play gashed the defense and they were completely helpless to stop it.
Dobbs deserves lots of credit, but the touchdown throws to Hurd, Jennings and the 42-yard slant to Josh Malone after Appleby’s interception were wide open. Dobbs posted a QB rating of 162.5, an elite rating that is more than 30 points higher than the average rating of his first three games.
I suspect that Dobbs is going to revert back to being an average QB the rest of the season with this as an outlier. That may bode well for the Gators getting back in the SEC East race, but it may be a harbinger of bad things to come for the defense.
The worry should be not so much this game in isolation, but that the second half felt like a replay of the bowl game against Michigan last season.
If you want to blame the coaching staff for anything, I suppose you could blame them for allowing all the bulletin board material, not just this week but over the entire offseason. There were good reasons that Tennessee was favored by the SEC media to start the season, and it probably wasn’t wise to poke the tiger.
You can’t call yourself DBU and then get absolutely torched when you play a quality opponent. You can’t go on Paul Finebaum’s show during the offseason and talk about how the media isn’t giving you any respect and then cough up a 21-point lead. You can’t make weird analogies about ducks and talk about how Tennessee hasn’t seen anything like the Florida defense yet and then give up 38 straight points with no resistance.
ESPNs Edward Aschoff reported that Vols defensive end Derek Barnett was quoted as saying, “It looked like we took their souls, really,” when asked about dominating Florida in the third quarter. That doesn’t speak well to the level of fight shown by the team in the second half.
The Gators don’t appear to have learned their lesson though. Immediately following the game, SEC Country’s Zach Abolverdi reported that the players don’t regret the trash talk and are still talking about national championships.
Thankfully Coach McElwain is talking about using the game to learn a lesson. Hopefully one of those lessons is one that I learned back in school so long ago.
You can’t act like a bully if you’re not going to fight when the opponent pushes back.