GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tennessee let the chance for a historical win slip away in muggy Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Saturday afternoon.
The Vols lost their SEC opener in heartbreaking fashion at Florida, losing 26-20 after rallying from 10 points down with under five minutes left to tie the game at 20-20. The Gators escaped with a 63-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the game.
Tennessee was tested several times in the game, in many different ways, with many different results.
Coach Butch Jones took the blame for the loss and said his team will need to grow from the defeat and find areas where it can become stronger.
Here’s a look at how position groups graded out:
Quinten Dormady did some good things in his first true road start, but three interceptions gets you beat most every time. Dormady’s first interception was his worst, off his back foot, over the middle, into traffic. The limits on Dormady’s mobility were also exposed. Dormady did make some good throws, too, such as the 28-yard touchdown pass to Ethan Wolf, which he dropped into a tight window.
Running backs (A-minus)
John Kelly brought intensity and power to the backfield, and Ty Chandler showed great juice on the perimeter. This was by far the most encouraging position group on the team, and the backs’ performances give hope for the offense moving forward. Kelly did drop potential game-winning pass and had costly taunting penalty, things that can’t happen in close games.
Tight end Ethan Wolf made a big-time 28-yard TD catch, but the wide receivers struggled to win 1-on-1 matchups. Marquez Callaway had a soaring catch early, and Josh Palmer made a third-down catch in traffic. But Callaway came up empty in the red zone and the end zone, and Palmer ran wrong route leading to interception and also dropped a TD pass. Tight end Austin Pope had a costly penalty in the red zone.
Offensive line (D)
It was a rough day for Jack Jones, with three motion penalties —including a pivotal one at the 1-yard line — and he was beaten on the play that led to the first interception. Jashon Robertson was penalized for holding in the red zone. Vols were beat up front all day by a good Florida front.
Defensive line (C)
The Vols’ D-Line couldn’t deliver on the final play, letting Florida QB Feleipe Franks escape and buy time for the game-winning throw. There were some good things. Darrell Taylor had a sack and recovered a fumble 24 yards downfield, Jonathan Kongbo had 7 tackles, Shy Tuttle blew up a run late, and Kyle Phillips had a pass break-up and QB hurry.
Colton Jumper had a third-and-8 sack — but only two tackles. Quart’e Sapp did some good things with 7 stops, but also missed some assignments. Daniel Bituli flashed, making 5 tackles and showing some athleticism. It was a quiet day for Cortez McDowell, who only had 3 tackles.
The secondary guys made some plays. There was a big-time interception from Rashaan Gaulden off of a tipped pass, and a huge hustle play by Justin Martin on a forced fumble. Nigel Warrior is coming into his own, and he should only get better. It was a tough final play when two defensive backs, first the cornerback then safety Micah Abernathy, let Florida WR Tyrie Cleveland slip behind them for a game-winning score. That was the only pass the Gators completed that was caught after 10 yards in the air. A couple missed tackles from Emmanuel Moseley and Abernathy also hurt.
Special teams (D)
Tennessee missed three field goals and Trevor Daniel shanked a punt. Callaway had a 29-yard punt return, but that was it for return yardage. Aaron Medley put two of three kickoffs in end zone, but the other went out of bounds. Brett Cimaglia made a 51-yarder but missed from 51 and 47. Medley made 27-yarder, but missed a 44-yarder. The missed field goals really hurt.
Tennessee made good in-game adjustments, but the red zone plan and execution was terrible, and Butch Jones must re-evaluate his short-yardage package. The defense had a great plan and controlled most of game after the opening drive, but Florida out-executed the Vols on the game-winning TD after the play broke down.
Tennessee took a relatively inexperienced team on its first road trip of the season for a third game in 13 days and got beat on the final play by the two-time defending SEC East division champs. The Vols, a 4-point underdog, showed they were good enough to pull the upset, but failed terribly in the red zone and in the kicking game It was a costly growing pain.