GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators edged out the Tennessee Volunteers 26-20 on Saturday to open SEC play. The highlight of course was the last-second, 63-yard touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland to seal the win, but there were other moments that affected the game as well.
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Here’s a closer look at some of the plays and tendencies that defined the game as well as some overall thoughts on the team after two games.
The Gators still have a long way to go on offense
Yes, Florida won on Saturday and it was a much-needed win, but the Gators still have a lot to prove on offense.
Heading into the fourth quarter, the Gators had just 191 yards of total offense and had yet to score an offensive touchdown. Florida turned up the heat late, recording 189 yards in the final 15 minutes and scoring two touchdowns on its final three possessions — a 5-yard dart from Franks to senior Brandon Powell and the last-second heave to Cleveland — but there is still a lot of room to grow overall.
“[They need to be] playing with some consistency,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said after the game. “Playing with some energy and playing with … you know ‘Get to the line and go.’ You know, when they do that, they go play pretty good.”
Special teams proved to be a difference
The Gators came into the season with arguably the best kicker-punter duo in college football with Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend. Their abilities to make a difference on special teams was an underlying and potentially forgotten factor that helped Florida come away with a win.
Pineiro made both of his first-half field goals — first from 27 yards on the first drive of the game and then again from 41 yards midway through the second quarter.
Townsend averaged 44.8 yards on 5 punts and pinned the Volunteers inside their 20-yard line twice.
Tennessee, meanwhile, missed three field goals from distances of 47, 51 and 44 yards.
Could a running back committee be forming?
After Jordan Scarlett was announced as one of the nine players indefinitely suspended from the team for alleged credit card fraud, it was expected that sophomore Lamical Perine would take on the lead back role with redshirt senior Mark Thompson and freshman Malik Davis splitting time as the backup.
After Saturday, however, it looks like the three could end up splitting carries a lot more evenly.
Together, the three rushed for 179 yards on 22 carries for an average 8.1 yards per carry. Perine (photo above) continued to be the workhorse, getting 55 yards on 11 carries. Thompson (first photo below) made a couple bruising runs and ending with 30 yards on 7 carries. Davis (second photo below) only had 4 carries but ended with a team-high 94 yards. The bulk of those yards came on a 74-yard scamper where he made multiple defenders miss but ultimately fumbled at the 1-yard line.
Each running back has his own strength, and together they form a formidable trio. If they can get going consistently, it will help Franks and the offense overall.
Florida’s pass rush was once again effective
While the final numbers aren’t pretty for Florida’s defense (442 total yards and 23 first downs allowed), one aspect where the Gators excelled on Saturday was in the pass rush. The Gators recorded 9 quarterback hurries, 5 total tackles for loss and a sack on Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormandy, with CeCe Jefferson, Jachai Polite, Jabari Zuniga (photo above) and Jeremiah Moon recording 2 hurries each. For the season, Florida has forced 13 quarterback hurries, 16 tackles for loss and 6 sacks.
Budding stars on defense
Florida’s youth is evident on defense this year. After losing eight regular contributors from the 2016 team to the NFL, first-year Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has gone deep into his roster to find potential playmakers.
And a few of those younger players are starting to show up.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Jeremiah Moon (photo above) had 2 tackles and a pair of quarterback hurries against Tennessee and also saw time at nickel after Duke Dawson and Vosean Joseph left the game with injuries.
Freshman defensive backs C.J. Henderson (photo below) and Marco Wilson are also making strides. Henderson recorded his second pick-6 in as many collegiate games on Saturday. Wilson tied with linebacker David Reese with a team-high 7 tackles and also had a team-best 3 pass breakups.