KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It was 92 degrees in the stands at Neyland Stadium and 108 degrees on the Shields-Watkins Field for Tennessee and Florida on Saturday.
As the game wore on, the No. 11-ranked Vols (4-0) grew stronger, and No. 23 Florida (3-1) weakened, Tennessee asserting itself as Gators fell all over the turf in the second half.
It was an historic 38-28 victory for the Vols, the program’s 10th in a row dating back to last season, and first over Florida since 2004, snapping an 11-game losing streak against their SEC East rivals.
Here’s this week’s report card:
Josh Dobbs wasn’t perfect — he threw 2 interceptions — but he was the key to the victory. Dobbs carried the Tennessee offense on his back until others were able to step up and complement his play. The offensive line finally got going, receivers started catching passes and backs broke tackles.
Running backs (B)
It’s not Jalen Hurd’s fault he only averaged 3.7 yards per carry and couldn’t get in on 2 carries inside the 2-yard line. But the large tailback found the end zone by grabbing a 23-yard touchdown pass — at a juncture of the game where others had drops. Hurd manned up and played hard. Alvin Kamara had 2 carries for 6 yards, while Hurd finished with 26 for 95.
Wide receivers (B-)
Jauan Jennings was magical with 3 catches for 111 yards including a juggling 67-yard catch and tightrope down the sideline that seemed to be a microcosm of UT’s struggles in the game and eventual breakthrough. Josh Malone shook off an early drop to finish with 4 catches for 91 yards and a TD. The tight ends brought the grade down, Ethan Wolf with two drops and Jason Croom with a touchdown drop. Wolf atoned with a TD grab.
Offensive line (B-)
Jashon Robertson picked himself off the turf after getting knocked down early and showed the sort of toughness Tennessee needs from him. Chance Hall brought a presence in his first start, and Jack Jones and Brett Kendrick seemed to get stronger as the game wore on.
Defensive line (A)
Derek Barnett took over the game in the second half with 2 sacks and a disposition that he would not be stopped. Kendal Vickers also played inspired ball against one of the biggest lines in the nation. Danny O’Brien had 2 stops and a TFL, fighting through the pain of an injury. Corey Vereen factored in as well as Kyle Phillips.
Colton Jumper stepped up when Tennessee needed him most with a team-leading 8 stops and a pass breakup, but most importantly, he kept the Vols aligned. Cortez McDowell came off the bench to make 6 stops and 2 TFLs, as Jalen Reeves-Maybin was limited to 2 tackles before leaving with an injury.
The safeties played well, especially Todd Kelly Jr. with his 5 tackles and key interception. Micah Abernathy had 3 stops and did a nice job over the middle of the field. Baylen Buchanan came off the bench and played well, and Emmanuel Moseley had his best game of the year. Rough start for Justin Martin.
Special teams (A-)
Aaron Medley made his 28-yard field goal, and Trevor Daniel was spectacular with all 5 of his punts inside the Florida 20 (43.2-yard average). Evan Berry did his thing with his 43-yard kick return, and Kamara had a daring 20-yard punt return that created a spark. Slight markdown for needless personal foul penalty to open the game.
It became very clear that the coaches had the game plan ready, and it was just a matter of the players executing. The coaches need to find a way to get Tennessee to play better out of the gates, though the team captains and upperclassmen have some responsibility. Great adjustments from Bob Shoop to send Florida to force three-and-outs or an INT on 7 of 8 second-half possessions. Mike DeBord used motions and shifts to dictate coverages to exploit.