GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The reaction coach Jim McElwain saw in Florida’s locker room Saturday night after a deflating loss at Tennessee was unlike anything he could remember from the Gators last fall, even during the three-game losing streak and the SEC championship game loss.
“The mood in that locker room, there were a lot — a lot — of hurt guys. And I’m not sure a couple of the losses even last year I could feel that sense of hurt,” he said Monday. “As I told them, it should hurt because if it doesn’t, something’s wrong. It means you really don’t care. It means you’re in it for the wrong reasons. We’ll see where we bounce from here.”
The No. 23 Gators (3-1, 1-1 SEC) surrendered 38 straight points after taking a 21-point lead late in the first half. The eventual 38-28 loss to the Vols snapped an 11-game winning streak in the rivalry series and set Florida back in its quest for a second-straight SEC East title.
It was a stunning collapse that very likely will prove to be a turning point for the Gators one way or another — either in how they grow and respond moving forward or in how the sting of the setback lingers.
“That was the most emotional locker room that I’ve ever been in,” quarterback Austin Appleby said. “There were a lot of guys that were really hurt. We fully expected to win that game, we started fast and we just came up a little bit short. Guys were hurt. Guys felt we played our hearts out, we played our hardest, effort wasn’t a problem. We just got beat by a good team and guys really took it personally.”
He seconded McElwain’s sentiments that it was good to see the players react that way.
“There were a lot of tears in that locker room. The things that were said in that locker room will stay in there, but I’m really, really encouraged by the way that we reacted that it wasn’t OK. It just wasn’t a loss; it looked like we lost the national championship. That’s what it felt like,” Appleby said. “It hurt. And what I’m excited to see is the way we respond and I’m confident we will the right way.”
Right tackle David Sharpe also noted that some players were crying and that it was a different postgame scene from other losses.
“That was a big tradition game. We had beat them for 11 years, just to be that team that lost to them to end the streak, it hurt a lot of guys. Especially a lot of guys in their last season, they really wanted that win,” Sharpe said.
The Gators will look to bounce back as they visit Vanderbilt on Saturday (noon ET, SEC Network) to take on a 2-2 Commodores team that needed overtime to slip past Western Kentucky over the weekend.
Florida has won 24 of the last 25 meetings with Vanderbilt and will want to shore up a number of areas before hosting LSU the following week.
The offensive line seemed to break down as the game went along, though McElwain said Monday he didn’t place the blame on that unit. The much-ballyhooed secondary showed its first cracks in giving up big play after big play to Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs and his playmakers in the second half. And in general, he thought the loud environment inside Neyland Stadium took the Gators out of their focus at times.
“It definitely went south pretty quick,” safety Marcus Maye said Monday. “Like I said, it’s a learning process, a learning curve. We’ve got to come out and play four quarters. We can’t take our foot off (the gas) and we can’t relax at all. Being (part of) something like that, coming out on the wrong end is definitely something that’s humbling.”
That’s what McElwain wants his players feeling this week, as long as they channel that into making the necessary corrections and adjustments.
Maye said a lot of players were immediately reviewing the game on their iPads during the trip home from Knoxville, Tenn., wanting to get another look at how everything went so wrong so fast.
“You know, they outplayed us, plain and simple,” McElwain said. “So the interesting thing, as I said kind of before, is what you learn and, you know, the past and the future, they don’t exist. The key is you learn from the past, you learn from history. The future is determined by what you do right now. It’s that simple, so what’s our approach moving forward from each individual, from each position group and then ultimately as a team, I think is, is ultimately going to really tell how we come out this week.”