KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s halftime transformation Saturday afternoon was one for the history books, the Vols slaying the rival Florida Gators 38-28 at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee trailed 21-3 at intermission, managing only a field goal after three trips inside the Florida 30-yard line — two within the 5.
The team was booed as it exited the field for halftime, and there was was panic in the stands, on social media and on message boards, some fans losing perspective and calling for the firing of fourth-year coach Butch Jones.
But Jones, who rebuilt UT from a program that won two of 16 SEC games prior to his hiring to a preseason top 10 pick, stayed on task.
“Just one play at a time,” Jones said, sharing the halftime message that triggered his team to play to its potential. “We didn’t play our best football in the first half, we all knew that, it was all on us.
“You just have to keep grinding and we’ll look at the scoreboard at the end of the game.”
Tennessee emerged for the final two quarters wearing the same “Smokey Grey” uniforms it kicked off in, but looking like a different team, averaging 9.08 yards per play in the second half after getting just 3.86 yards a pop the first two quarters.
The Gators, meanwhile, dropped from 8.82 yards per play in the first half to 2.83 yards per offensive snap in the second half, much to the delight of the capacity crowd of 102,455.
The win moved Tennessee to 4-0 on the season and 1-0 in the SEC East Division, extending a winning streak that dates back to last season to 10 games while snapping Florida’s string of victories in the rivalry at 11.
“Breaking a streak is something special, it’s a part of our legacy that could be left here, saying we were the team to do that,” said junior left guard Jashon Robertson, the only UT player to start at the same offensive line position all four games. “There’s a lot of guys who came in and came out of here without doing it.”
The Tennessee turnaround from 18 points down was also the Vols’ biggest second-half comeback in Neyland Stadium history.
The only UT second-half comeback that was bigger took place in Baton Rouge, when Rick Clausen came off the bench to lead the 2005 Tennessee from 21-0 down to a 30-27 overtime victory.
This Vols did not require a quarterback change this time.
Senior Josh Dobbs merely needed his offensive line to provide better protection and his receivers to catch passes after six drops in the first half.
“We were shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Dobbs, who passed for four touchdowns, ran for another, and accounted for 399 of his team’s 498 yards of total offense against a Florida defense that entered the afternoon game ranked No. 1 in the nation, having allowed 389 yards total through its first three games.
“The biggest adjustment was just executing the offense, that’s the big thing we talked about at halftime,” said junior receiver Josh Malone, who reeled in a 42-yard touchdown catch in the second half.
“We let them jump on us early because we weren’t putting the points on the board, and we were in the red zone several times.”
The defense, meanwhile, stayed poised despite the scoreboard.
First-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who had boldly stated earlier in the week that he was hired to beat Florida, brought a calming presence into the halftime setting.
“Coach Shoop doesn’t panic, each week he shows he’s the leader of our defense and we feed off that,” defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. “He came in the locker room and said, ‘Don’t panic, they’re not doing anything we haven’t seen, and we’ll get after them in the second half,’ and that’s what we did.”
Seven of Florida’s eight second half possessions resulted in three-and-outs, Shoop mixing up the coverages in the secondary to keep fifth-year graduate transfer Austin Appleby off balance.
Dobbs side-stepped the Gators pass rush and struck for touchdown passes of 23 and 20 yards in the third quarter to cut the lead to 21-17.
The Vols pressed the tempo with their no huddle offense, and a handful of Florida players crumpled to the turf with cramps as the second half wore on.
The temperature at Shields-Watkins field level was 108 degrees at kickoff, another 90-degree-plus day in one of the longest summers on record in the Tennessee Valley.
The Vols players had embraced the same sort of sweat in the offseason, fueled by Florida’s digs and boasts on social media and in Birmingham a the SEC Media Days in July.
Receiver Jauan Jennings indicated that made it that much sweeter for him to beat Florida’s Teez Tabor, the Gators’ chief instigator, with a double-move on his 67-yard touchdown grab that gave the Vols their first lead of the game at 24-21 in the fourth quarter.
Appleby was intercepted on the first play of the Gators’ ensuing possession by safety Todd Kelly Jr..
Three plays after that, Josh Malone reeled in a 42-yard touchdown pass from Dobbs that made it 31-21 and sent the orange-and-white, checker-boarded crowd into a frenzy.
“I just kept looking at their body language,” Kelly Jr. said. “We just took their soul.”
And with it, the Vols took early control of the SEC East Division, aimed squarely at what would be the program’s first trip to the league’s championship game since a 2007 loss to eventual national champion LSU.
Jones closed Saturday afternoon in the stadium atop a ladder, directing the Pride of the Southland Band to a stirring rendition of “Rocky Top,” tears of joy welling in his eyes, more expectations ahead for his program.