The Vols led Florida for seven minutes in the second quarter. JaVonta Payton had just caught a 75-yard touchdown pass from Hendon Hooker, and signs were trending in the right direction for the Vols to pull of their first win at the Swamp since 2003.
That’s where Tennessee’s good fortunes stopped.
No. 11 Florida scored the game’s next 28 points to beat the Vols 38-14 Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Just like the Pitt loss, preventable mistakes did the Vols in, and they fell to 2-2 on the year with their fifth straight loss against the Gators.
“I thought opportunity in the second half, we didn’t take advantage of certain opportunities,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. “We didn’t play smart football down the stretch. Not a question of wanting to, as we come out of the tunnel for the second half, but obviously, not being good enough competitors, smart enough competitors to go play the way we need to against a really good football team.”
All things considered, the Vols got off to a promising start. Tennessee responded to Florida’s opening score with a Tiyon Evans 46-yard touchdown reception, held Florida to a field goal and a punt on its next 2 possessions, before Hooker found Payton for the lead.
Prior to the game, Heupel had decided to start Hooker, in part because of his success over the last two games, and in part because Heupel felt Joe Milton III was not fully recovered from his injury that kept him out of last week’s game.
The results were there for the Vols. Hooker completed 13-of-23 for 221 yards and 2 touchdowns. Payton, Evans and Velus Jones Jr. each caught multiple passes and totaled over 60 yards receiving. Jabari Small and Evans also both ran for 50+ yards on the ground. Heupel and Co. again designed plays that beat the Florida defenders, and Hooker finally connected on some deep passes.
“I thought Hendon played hard, competed,” Heupel said. “Made some big time plays inside of the pocket. He used his feet opportunistic . . . A ton of positives there.”
These positive signs makes the loss that much more frustrating for the Vols, who would have been close with Florida if not for the many preventable mistakes.
“We had a lot of penalties today, and we had some dropped balls,” Payton said. “With a team like Florida, those are the types of things that can get you beat. They have talented guys out there, so the team that makes the less mistakes is the team that comes out with the W.”
Tennessee’s most notable miscue came in the third quarter. Florida had just opened the half with an impressive touchdown drive, and Tennessee needed an answer.
The Vols put together on of their better drives of the night, marching into Florida territory including a fourth down conversion. Faced with another 4th & 5, Heupel drew up a beautiful play, a drag route by Jimmy Calloway that had him wide open with room to run.
Hooker’s throw hit Calloway right in the hands – seemingly a first down that would keep Tennessee alive – but he dropped it. Florida took the turnover on downs and scored eight plays later.
If there’s any good news for the Vols, it’s that all these mishaps are controllable. The dropped passes and needless penalties can be cleaned up in practice, which is a top priority for Heupel.
“If you want to win against a really good football team, you just can’t (make those mistakes) as a program. We’ve got to get better,” Heupel said.
The Vols knowing they need to clean it up is one thing, but actually doing it is another. Tennessee has been in this spot before. Just last year, the Vols opened 2020 with two impressive wins, before a loss to Georgia sent their season spiraling out of control.
Will Tennessee be able to correct its course this time, or will it fall apart again? Only time will tell, but the Vols are confident they can stay on track.
“We’re going to get closer as a team,” senior defensive back Alontae Taylor said. “We’re going to go back and watch the film. Continue to build that bond . . . One thing I will say is we will not fall apart this year. And you can quote me on that.”