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The Florida Gators celebrate the game-winning reception by Tyrie Cleveland.

Florida victory over Tennessee delivers hope that Gators offense has turned a corner

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For the first 50 minutes of its Saturday game against Tennessee, the Florida defense outscored the offense 7-6. And then — when the gassed defense just couldn’t muster a stop — the offense finally picked them up.

We learned a lot from this game against Tennessee.

We learned that wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland isn’t just a deep threat. Certainly the Hail Mary to Cleveland is the play most fans will remember. But he also had a clutch kickoff return after Tennessee pulled within 3 points following the Malik Davis fumble. But the play that will stick in my mind is the third-and-5 right after Cleveland’s return.

Tennessee rotates to a single-high safety look right before the snap. This means that Cleveland has 1-on-1 coverage and the slant is wide open. Not only did quarterback Feleipe Franks recognize it, but Cleveland beat his man inside (with a quick jab step outside) and pulled down the pass for an easy first down.

That play did two things. First, it continued the drive that put the Gators up 20-10. But perhaps just as importantly, it allowed the defense to rest. The Gators didn’t convert many third downs in the second half, but that one was probably the most important. The Gators only possessed the ball for 9:26 in the second half so while points were critical, so too was giving the defense a blow.

We learned that Kadarius Toney is a weapon who needs to be utilized in more than just a special package. Every time he touched the ball, it seemed like the Gators got a first down. When a play isn’t blocked perfectly, he has the ability to make someone miss and get positive yardage.

This is another one of those third-down plays to convert to a first down. It didn’t lead to points, but it did run more time off the clock. That time became important when Tennessee missed a long field goal as time expired in the first half.

It’s also worth noting because the play should have been only a 3-yard gain. Instead, Toney made the first defensive back miss and had the speed to cut back toward that DB and still miss his second attempt to trip him up short. Florida had a 5:11 edge in time of possession in the first half, and a lot of that had to do with going 5 of 10 on third downs in the first half and making plays just like this.

We learned that Feleipe Franks has a lot of upside, but is still clearly a work in progress. On the play above, Franks locks onto Toney and completely misses a wide open Dre Massey streaking downfield on a wheel route. I saw it live. The guy next to me in the stands saw it live. Franks must see those kinds of things to make this offense potent.

But Franks showed a lot of positives in the game, too. He is making the correct pre-snap read the majority of the time. In the play to Cleveland above, he identified his 1-on-1 coverage and threw a strike.

Earlier in the second quarter, he saw Tennessee split its safeties out wide, essentially double covering the receiver at the top of the formation and playing 3-on-2 with the receivers at the bottom of the formation. This coverage clearly leaves the tight end on a linebacker. Franks identifies that tight end Moral Stephens is his target and delivers a strike for a first down.

We learned that the offensive line is not the strength of the team. Tennessee gave up 535 rushing yards to Georgia Tech and 122 to Indiana State. While Florida did manage 168 yards, the vast majority (102) of those yards came on the 2 carries by Lamical Perine and Davis that ended in fumbles. The line didn’t get dominated like it did against Michigan, but Tennessee’s defensive line is also not Michigan’s.

We also learned though that misdirection can be used to help the line not have to win every 1-on-1 battle. On the long run to Davis, Toney was split out to the right and Massey was brought in motion to fake a jet sweep to that side.

The offensive line blocked as if Massey was getting the ball. Instead, the ball was given to Davis coming the other direction, with tight end C’yontai Lewis as the lead blocker. Lewis made the block, Davis got to the edge and it should have been a touchdown.

On the drive to put the Gators up 20-10 in the fourth quarter, misdirection was again utilized by Doug Nussmeier to free up his playmakers.

On this play, they fake the screen to the left side. The fake is convincing because left tackle Martez Ivey (73) sprints out to the left side to ostensibly make a block. The linebackers flow to that side and when Franks instead throws a screen to the right side, wide receiver Brandon Powell has a lot of open space and gets a first down.

Two plays later, Franks completed a pass to Powell for a touchdown. But there was a slight adjustment to tendency Florida made that was interesting.

When they brought Powell in motion, he aligned in a position that Florida typically uses for tight end Deandre Goolsby. The fake to running back Mark Thompson freezes the linebackers for just a minute and since Powell caught the ball instead of a tight end, he beats the linebacker to the end zone.

This play isn’t particularly well blocked by the offensive line, but it didn’t have to be because of the scheme. Franks just had to drift backwards until Powell cleared the initial traffic. The real blocking need was at wide receiver, and Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain did a great job holding their blocks.

We learned that the Florida defense will be better than anybody thought. Florida came out in the first half and contained Tennessee running back John Kelly. They played a lot of true 4-3 instead of nickel, daring Tennessee QB Quentin Dormady to beat them. Dormady responded with 3 backbreaking interceptions, all when he was pressured.

Yes, the defense did give up 231 yards in the fourth quarter. But if Davis doesn’t fumble, Florida is up 20-3 with 10 minutes left and we’re all marveling at the defensive performance. Instead, the defense had to come back onto the field with Tennessee having a 14:43 to 4:31 time-of-possession advantage to that point in the second half. The defense was gassed, and finally Kelly started to run wild.

There were certainly warts. The clock management by Jim McElwain at the end was atrocious. After Franks’ run to make it third-and-1, McElwain has to call a timeout. Instead, he let the clock run and the Hail Mary was necessary because after getting the first down on a Thompson run, there wasn’t time for anything else.

Turnovers and penalties were huge. Florida’s first drive of the game ended in a field goal because of back-to-back delay-of-game and false-start penalties. The fumbles by Perine and Davis were backbreakers that nearly cost Florida the game. And Tennessee’s 2 sacks came on pass protection breakdowns by the running backs.

Had Tennessee been better than 2 for 5 on field goals, or had Tennessee not passed the ball four straight times in the red zone after the Perine fumble, or — perhaps most importantly — had Kelly not dropped the first-down pass right at the goal line, the outcome of the game might have been different.

The disappointment of the Michigan game was that there didn’t look like there had been any progress on offense over the offseason. The offensive line was manhandled. The staff didn’t get the ball to its playmakers. And the defense finally broke after being on the field all day long.

The same story was playing out against Tennessee on Saturday night. But when it counted, the offense came through multiple times to deliver the victory.

And as I was leaving the stadium Saturday night, the Hail Mary to Cleveland felt like the Will Grier to Antonio Callaway connection against Tennessee from two years ago. The Gators had no business winning this game the way they did (thanks, Butch Jones). The offense sputtered for much of the game.

But Gators fans leave this game with hope that the offense has turned a corner, that Franks is the QB to turn things around and that McElwain is the right man to lead that charge. There is more work to be done. But the Gators are in first place in the SEC East, beat a ranked team and finally showed some life on offense.

Now they just have to do it again.