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Florida vs. Tennessee, Three Takeaways: From pressing the gas to running on empty

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Florida’s game plan seemed perfect. Until it wasn’t.

Florida v Tennessee Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Another week, another different post-game recap. A Rundown, at least, is coming, too.

Florida had a winning game plan...

The worst part about Florida losing to Tennessee on Saturday? Florida had the Vols defeated for the first 30 minutes, and maybe five or so of the second half.

And the plan was predicated on smart, aggressive offense. The Gators tallied 300 yards of total offense in the first half, with Austin Appleby throwing a trio of dimes on deep balls to Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland and Florida running backs gashing the Vols for nearly five yards per carry. All three Florida touchdown drives covered at least 75 yards, and two others ending in punts went at least 25 yards.

Between that and letting Tennessee’s receivers drop every other pass while playing soft coverage and not blitzing, the Gators seemed to have a blueprint for victory.

...until that plan got punched in the face

After halftime? Florida had nine yards in the second half after its first drive, zero after two drives, negative one yard after three, negative two after four, still negative two after five — but with a pick — and negative nine after six. It was only on the seventh drive that the Gators got a first down in the second half.

By then, Florida was down 17 points — and while that drive eventually ended with a touchdown after a ponderous 16 plays, the game was effectively over by then.

The Vols did, eventually, stop dropping passes — and so they moved the ball, given possession after possession to try their hand at it. The previously impregnable Gators defense was on the field for 79 snaps on Saturday, more than half of what they had to play over their three previous games, and they got leaned on and pushed over as the day progessed.

But I’m inclined to blame what seemed like a philosophical shift on offense that played into Tennessee’s hands for that as much as I am the defense’s own failings. Had Florida converted a third-and-one on its first drive of the second half, following up an interception with something to keep the then-silent Tennessee crowd out of the game, maybe things would have been different. Had Florida answered either the first or second touchdowns of Tennessee’s second half with something other than a three-and-out, perhaps we would have seen a shootout, not an onslaught.

It didn’t. And Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier, who had as good a first half as they have had at Florida prior to the worst second half they have had in coaching the Gators, will be kicking themselves about that for days to come.

Florida’s defense isn’t as elite as it hoped

There were excellent plays made by Florida defenders on Saturday. Marcus Maye swatted down a possible touchdown on fourth and goal from the Florida 1. Quincy Wilson erased one red-zone trip with a pick in the end zone. Teez Tabor capitalized on pressure from Caleb Brantley for an interception of his own.

But those plays were few and far between, and the big plays were almost all Tennessee’s in the second half. The Vols got pass-catchers open — on blown coverages by Tabor, and Duke Dawson, and Jarrad Davis (with an assist from Maye, perhaps) — and those receivers sped by couldn’t-be tacklers for touchdown catches of 67, 42, 23, and 20 yards. Florida had allowed five pass plays of 20 or more yards before Saturday; in the second half alone, it gave up six.

There wasn’t much pressure, either, with just one sack and the hurry that produced Tabor’s pick officially credited to the Gators’ defense. Dobbs had 80 yards on 17 carries, many of them wriggling short runs that could have been sacks with sounder tackling or a less powerful runner behind center.

And Florida gave up runs for yardage rather than creating losses on early downs, allowing Tennessee to stay on schedule and be aggressive rather than desperate in its play-calling. That didn’t matter much on the specific sets of downs that produced points — Tennessee’s four touchdown passes came on second and third down, and with five, nine, 10, and 10 yards to go — but it helped the Vols get to those critical series, and prolonged what was already a grueling second half for the defense.

Surely, there will be plenty of fingers pointed at Tabor and Wilson — who talked, to be frank, a lot of shit in the week leading up to this game, and even more over the months of the 2016 offseason — for failures, as if their confidence in those moments directly correlated to only their mistakes on Saturday. Neither will get credit for his pick; Wilson won’t get credit for being basically unseen on the day because his coverage was excellent, and Tabor won’t get the benefit of the doubt after having to sprint back onto the field after suffering injuries that sent him to the locker room in the third quarter.

This, though, was a collapse on all three levels, from a line that couldn’t harry or hurry Dobbs often enough, a linebacking corps that was singed repeatedly in coverage, and a secondary that spent much of the second half chasing open receivers.

And if the Gators want to be the best defense in the nation — which they arguably were after three games, and inarguably aren’t after four — they must learn from this.