Jordan McPherson/SEC Country
Florida defensive end Jabari Zuniga celebrates with freshman corner C.J. Henderson after the rookie's interception return for touchdown Saturday.

Gators’ D embraces all-too-familiar role in carrying the load for three quarters vs. Vols

Ryan Young

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It will no doubt get obscured by the frenetic finish and Florida’s incredible 63-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland.

That was the story of this 26-20 win Saturday night, no doubt.

But earlier in the fourth quarter, the Gators’ defense was poised to be the story of the game and that shouldn’t be totally lost.

Sure, the Gators surrendered two fourth-quarter touchdowns as Tennessee rallied back to eventually tie the game and set up that dramatic ending. In the end, the overall numbers (442 yards and 23 first downs for the Vols) don’t exactly scream defensive dominance. True.

But all things must be evaluated in perspective.

For more than three quarters Saturday, Florida asked this young, restocked defense to do what its veteran predecessors of recent years so often did — put the Gators’ offense over its shoulder and carry the team as far as it could. And, impressively, for much of the game, that’s exactly what the defense was able to do.

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Florida lost eight key contributors from its stacked 2016 defense, all of whom got a chance in the NFL. The Gators lost their three best defensive backs, all second-round draft picks. They lost their two best linebackers, including first-rounder Jarrad Davis. They lost their two best run stuffers in the middle of the line.

There were legitimate questions whether the 2017 Gators’ D, reloaded with young players in key spots, would be ready to uphold the standard of its recent iterations. Well, maybe they aren’t quite to that level, but these Gators showed Saturday night they have plenty of playmakers all the same.

In what felt almost like a must-win game Saturday against Tennessee — yes, that’s silly to say about the second game of a season, but man, it had that feel — Florida put most all of the responsibility on its defense for more than three quarters. And until the very end, it was delivering a vintage performance with three interceptions, huge third-down stops and its own contribution on the scoreboard.

Florida didn’t allow a touchdown to the Vols until there were 8 minutes, 36 seconds left in the game before giving up another with 4:43 to go and later the game-tying field goal. Tennessee running back John Kelly was warming up as the defense was wearing down. That happens when a unit has to do it all for so long.

“I think they wore on us a little bit, and we did miss some tackles. Up to that point I thought, for the most part, our guys did a heck of a job,” coach Jim McElwain said.

Just count the highlights …

On Tennessee’s first trip into Florida territory, linebacker David Reese intercepted Vols quarterback Quinten Dormady at the 30-yard line for the first turnover of the day. The Vols settled for a 51-yard field goal on their second opportunity across the 50, late in the second quarter, before later missing a 47-yard field goal at the end of the half as the Gators protected a 6-3 lead. Tennessee had managed just 134 yards to that point.

In the third quarter, though, the defense took it to another level.

A fumble by Florida running back Lamical Perine after a 21-yard gain gave the Vols possession just inside midfield and they got all the way down to a first-and-goal at the 1. Duke Dawson nearly intercepted a pass in the end zone and was visibly frustrated when it fell through his hands. Chauncey Gardner Jr. drew a taunting penalty with his reaction and the Vols reset on first down from the goal line. But the Gators didn’t bend.

Dormady threw incomplete on first down, defensive end Jachai Polite pressured him to toss a quick screen pass that went nowhere on second down and then he threw it right to Dawson on what was either a bad pass or a miscommunication with his receiver. This time Dawson wasn’t going to let it drop. End result, interception No. 2 and no points for the visitors.

The very next series, Tennessee was again set up with ideal field position after a three-and-out and 29-yard punt return. The Vols took over at the Florida 36 and got to the 17 when the defense again refused to give any further.

Dormady threw incomplete on third-and-2, but Florida defensive end Jordan Sherit was held on the play and the Gators decided to take the penalty and try to push a potential Vols field goal try back a little further. The gamble paid off. On third-and-12 from the 27, Jabari Zuniga and Kyree Campbell smashed Dormady for a loss of 6 yards and Tennessee missed a 51-yard FG. Still a 6-3 game.

Surely sensing that the Florida offense wasn’t going to do much the rest of the way, the defense decided to find the end zone itself as freshman C.J. Henderson corralled a high pass from Dormady tipped by his receiver and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown and a 13-3 lead. It was Henderson’s second pick-6 in as many college games.

“You already know what I’m going to say, we have the best of the best,” Gardner said after the game. “DBU, all I’m going to say. I would put those freshmen up against any wide receiver.”

Tennessee finally broke through with those two fourth quarter touchdowns.

Then came the ending.

On second-and-long, Florida QB Feleipe Franks was intercepted at the Gators’ 40 with 3:57 left to play, giving Tennessee a prime opportunity to deliver a reverberating gut punch to the players, coaches and fans in The Swamp.

Kelly later dropped a pass over the middle on first and goal as the clocked ticked down to 1:02 and the suspense amplified. Dormady threw incomplete into the left side of the end zone to Marquez Callaway with freshman Marco Wilson delivering tight coverage. On third down, he threw incomplete to the right with redshirt-freshman C.J. McWilliams rising to the occasion in coverage with Dawson sidelined by injury.

The Vols had to settle for a game-tying field goal with 50 seconds remaining, and the rest is history.

“Just knowing that worst-case scenario, they get 3 points and we can go into overtime and win the game,” Reese said of the mentality entering that final defensive stand. “We just had the mindset that we could not let them score. We had the fans behind us and that really helped us a whole lot.”

The highlight that will get replayed on SportsCenter and be remembered for years will be the Hail Mary touchdown from Franks to Cleveland as time expired. That’s fair.

But the Gators never get to that point without three-plus quarters of huge defensive plays, and that might have been the most encouraging takeaway Saturday.