The 38-28 final score of the Florida-Tennessee game has quite a few stories underneath it.
After taking a commanding three-touchdown lead in the first half, it seemed as though everything Florida dialed up on offense was one step ahead of Tennessee’s defense. In a game that was supposed to be cautious offensively for the Gators, due to it being on the road and with a new quarterback, the first half was instead littered with big plays through the air.
However, in a tale of two halves, Florida began calling plays as a result of its lead instead of being desperate to add to it. The Vols capitalized on every opening they were given in the second half, and the end result was 38 unanswered points, which helped them end an infamous 11-game losing streak to the Gators.
So, where did it all go wrong for Florida? There are always a few factors that lead to a total swing in momentum, but there’s one series in particular that, in hindsight, put the writing on the wall for Florida’s loss.
Let’s take a look.
In the screenshot above, we saw Florida line up for its third offensive series of the second half. The first was a three-and-out that UT scored a touchdown on in its following drive. The second was yet another three-and-out that exposed Florida’s go-to third-down screen play as no longer an option.
This third offensive series was the most important one for Florida all afternoon. To this point of the second half, the Gators had not tested the Vols deep like they did in the first half. Their two passes were screens and their running plays were for minimal gain. This was an important drive, one that not only needed to sustain time of possession, but to put points on the board.
But instead of realizing they needed to get creative to do that, coach Jim McElwain got scared of the bad field position and became even more conservative.
In the Vine above of that first-down play, you can hear CBS commentator Gary Danielson say, “When is Florida going to go deep again?”
For most of the first half, the Gators moved the ball at will. They tested the Vols’ overaggressive game plan to stopping the run and were able to beat them deep 20-plus yards down the field with big passes. First down would’ve been a good place to test Tennessee’s secondary for the first time since the break, but they didn’t.
Instead, they settled for a predictable run that Tennessee was set up well to defend.
Second and long was also an ideal spot to try some sort of pass beyond the first-down marker.
Tennessee was lined up in press coverage. This is the preferred setup for the Vols secondary, but with star corner Cam Sutton out with an injury, UT was in more cover 3 off coverage in the first half, hoping to not get beat deep (even thought it did). Florida star receiver Antonio Callaway or even Brandon Powell should’ve been the one lined up on the right side of the field to see if either could get by the defender with his speed.
But instead, the Gators continued to call plays out of fear of the field position. The result was poor.
If you were to ask me to pick just one play in the game that was the turning point, it was Florida choosing to run the ball on this second down.
On third and long, there was no deception. The field position that swayed McElwain’s offensive play-calling in the first two downs now forced his hand on third down.
With each of the first two three-and-outs from Florida, we saw Tennessee’s defensive line get more and more motivated. On the flip side, we also saw Florida’s offensive line get more and more frustrated.
By the time this third-down play rolled around, it was too late — the drive was already over. With a newly energized pass rush able to go after the pocket combined with a now-confident secondary, the expectation for success in this situation was low.
That expectation became reality.
The Vols followed up this third straight three-and-out with a touchdown to bring Florida’s lead to single digits, 21-17. For the remainder of the game, when the Gators offense took the field, it no longer had the luxury of catching the Vols off guard. Tennessee knew what was coming due to the situations and having all momentum on its side. The Vols continued to turn defensive stops into offensive points until the final score read 38-28.
If Florida could’ve just put some points on the board or even some momentum on its side with a long drive on this series, this game would have ended differently. In the end, it was McElwain’s fear of failure that did the Gators in — which is very unlike McElwain. The only safe lead is the one that keeps growing. McElwain forgot that in the second half, and his team paid for it.