A resilient and determined Tennessee came out and won one of the most important games in recent program memory. The easy story is the end of an agonizing 11-year loss streak to their Divisional rival. But the real story here is how a depleted Vols defense, missing three of their best four players, shut down the Florida Gators in the second half. And the Tennessee offense, behind new Knoxville legend Joshua Dobbs, put 35 points on a nationally ranked Florida defense. All while hosting a program record for most official visits at a game, including ESPN‘s number one overall recruit for the Class of 2017, Trey Smith.
In doing so, Tennessee takes command of the SEC East standings. The Vols have a chance to take a commanding lead next week at Georgia.
Tennessee Game Grades: Florida Edition
For the exception of the first quarter, Tennessee’s offense consistently moved the ball against a well-respected Gators defense. The difference between the halves was Tennessee’s ability to convert in the red zone. Dropped passes were the biggest culprit. In the second half, Tennessee receivers were able to haul in the ball and that made all the difference.
Offensive Stat of the Game: Joshua Dobbs’ 319 passing yards.
Joshua Dobbs answered a lot of questions today. Most importantly, Tennessee’s vertical game was more than “just good enough.” Dobbs can clearly be the quarterback to lead this team to a Division, Conference or more championship this season. Dobbs had over 300 yards in the air and added 80 yards on the ground against one the nation’s highest rated defenses. His leadership and decision-making — those things that don’t show up on the stat sheet — might be the championship ingredient to complement his physical skills. Dobbs is the first Vols quarterback to win against Florida in a decade. Pretty safe to say he’s going to be able to sit wherever he wants in the cafeteria this weekend.
Running Backs: B+
Most thought that Tennessee would have to establish the running game to win this game. That wasn’t the case. Florida’s defense focused on controlling the duo of Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd. Tennessee did have 179 rushing yards on the day, buoyed by Hurd’s 95 and Dobbs’ 80, but was largely used to maintain balance on offense. Notably, there was only six or seven designed runs for Dobbs. And we only saw Hurd and Kamara in the backfield on fewer than five occasions. One must wonder if the Vols running game had a little more in reserve.
This was a tough one. The receivers had five dropped passes in the first half, including one sure touchdown, one likely touchdown, and two that would have converted key third downs. But the receivers turned the corner in the second half, highlighted by Jauan Jennings‘ early third down conversion and later 67-yard touchdown reception. Josh Malone added 42-yard touchdown reception as well. Tennessee had eight players with receptions tonight, fully testing one of the best secondaries in the nation. Additionally, the receivers only had one blocking penalty in the run game.
Offensive Line: B
The biggest question entering this game was easily the offensive line. It didn’t start well for the men up front, but with a steady dose of a bruising running game, a mobile quarterback who was accurate down the field today, and some clever scheming from the offensive coaches, the line was able to put together their best performance of the season today. Florida’s defensive line owned the line of scrimmage in the first half. But that changed in the second half. Tennessee was able to wear down the Florida front seven and give Dobbs just enough time. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but the performance today against a really good defense should feel good for a much aligned group.
Just beat Florida. pic.twitter.com/g97kGHz8Vr
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) September 24, 2016
Tennessee’s defense is completely different than last season. Tennessee has only given up 24 points in the second half of games this season, compared to 60 points allowed in the first half. It was a similar tune today, with Florida moving for three long drives in the first half resulting in 21 points, but not able to find a first down in the second half until late in the fourth quarter.
Defensive Stat of the Game: Florida gained their first first down of the second half at 7:45 remaining in the 4th quarter.
Defensive Line: B
Much like the offensive line, the defensive line wasn’t able to establish control of the line of scrimmage in the first half. The Gators were able to put together three scoring drives of over 75 yards each. But like everyone else, the defensive line came out determined in the second half. They asserted control of the line of scrimmage and provided consistent pressure on Florida quarterback Austin Appleby with only a four-man rush. Derek Barnett had a key tackle-for-loss and sack in the fourth quarter that prevented Florida from stemming the Vols momentum.
Speaking of resiliency, the linebacker corps epitomized Tennessee’s win today. Without the services of both starters for the majority of the game, Colton Jumper and Cortez McDowell, along with Kenny Bynum and Dillon Bates, stepped up and played well. On two consecutive plays in the fourth quarter, Jumper defensed a pass in the flat for no gain and McDowell snuffed out a middle screen and tackled the Gator running back for no gain. Jumper, specifically, has been criticized for his play this season. But even his toughest critics must give credit where credit is due. He played as significant part of this Vols win as any other defensive player.
Defensive Backs: B
Justin Martin‘s first quarter aside, the defensive backs had another solid performance. Admittedly, they were helped out by some questionable play calling from Florida’s offensive staff. Tennessee gave up several big plays in the first half, but Florida didn’t seem to want to press their success and go deep in the second half. The secondary’s run support was again a strong point, and Todd Kelly, Jr. had an interception in the second half. The defensive backs must get better before they travel to College Station to face Texas A&M in two weeks.
Special Teams: A
Trevor Daniel was the special teams player of the game, consistently pinning Florida deep in their own end. He, as well as the secondary, benefited from two big mistakes from Florida’s return man, Antonio Callaway. Coverage units were excellent, and Aaron Medley was true all day. Evan Berry got one opportunity and made the best of it was a 43 yard return. Alvin Kamara was solid all game on punt returns as well. Tennessee’s average starting field position was the Tennessee 44-yard line. That may well be the most important statistic of the day.
Butch Jones has his signature win in Knoxville. In front of a plethora of talented recruits and a stadium full of fans still waiting, Jones’ team was composed when they stumbled, resilient — as they have been all season long, and came out with the best half of Tennessee football in a generation. For all the criticism of Jones over the past three weeks, he showed today that he has this team mentally and emotionally ready to take the next step. The program is healthy, and that’s on Butch Jones.
The offensive play calling still lends itself to a few questions, mostly about integrating Dobbs into the run game more and putting Kamara and Hurd in the backfield more. On defense, Bob Shoop continues to make the adjustments at halftime that kept Tennessee out of the national conversation last season.
Next game: Georgia (Away). Tennessee has a chance to take a commanding lead in the SEC East with a win against Georgia next week. Georgia was soundly defeated in Oxford today and Nick Chubb‘s health will be a question. Georgia is still adjusting to Kirby Smart and Jim Cheney, and they have their own questions on offensive line. If Tennessee wins, they’ll have essentially a two-game lead on both Florida and Georgia with those two teams still scheduled to play each other.
The importance of this win cannot be overstated, and Tennessee players, coaches, administration, and fans should all enjoy it. The national narrative will now change from “Tennessee can’t beat Florida” to “Tennessee is back.” But it won’t do much good if the Vols don’t capitalize on this opportunity with an SEC East divisional championship.
This is a big step for this program, but it’s only one step.