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Tennessee 38, Florida 28: Gators implode, get exposed on Rocky Top

Florida had Tennessee down. Then the Vols got off the mat.

NCAA Football: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Midway through the second quarter of Florida’s game against Tennessee on Saturday, a chance to add a 12th straight win to one of the greatest current streaks in college football, the Gators had a 21-0 lead.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Tennessee scored its 38th straight point on the previously vaunted Florida defense — and had all but finished its first win over the Gators since 2004.

Florida would score again in the fourth quarter; all that did was make the final margin 38-28, and avoid the ignominy of losing a game in which the other team scored 38 unanswered points to end it.

This was a collapse, a meltdown, an implosion, even an embarrassment. Florida had Tennessee’s offense shook, as receivers dropped some passes by the bushel and Joshua Dobbs fired others at Gators. Florida had Tennessee’s defense solved, with shots over the top opening up running lanes.

It wasn’t just Florida, of course: Tennessee played ferocious football in the second half, from Dobbs on down.

The Volunteers’ mercurial senior quarterback finally seemed to come of age in the second 30 minutes, recovering from a second pick to throw four touchdown passes in the span of just more than a quarter, throwing for 319 yards for the game, and adding 80 more yards with his legs. Jalen Hurd mustered 95 yards on the ground over 26 thumping carries.

Tennessee’s defense did a number on the offense that had aerated it in the first half, harassing Austin Appleby into a horrific interception and forcing five consecutive three-and-outs as Florida plodded conservatively instead of punching aggressively.

But Florida fans will recall where the Gators were, up 21 points, for at least a year. Maybe not for 11 of them — not if a rivalry suddenly defined by thrilling, unlikely comebacks swings back toward the Gators in any one of the next five games between the two teams in Gainesville.

And if Florida’s locker room needs to look back at the moments when a season that allowed big dreams turned into one that would include at least one nightmare, it would do well to remember the first 20 or so minutes of Saturday’s second half.

In those minutes, the duck pulled the truck.