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Florida vs. Tennessee, Three Takeaways: What mattered beyond the miracle

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Florida wrote history with an amazing play on Saturday. Will that matter next week?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If we’re being honest: The Florida Gators probably should have beaten the Tennessee Volunteers soundly enough to not need a miracle on Saturday, or lost in a fashion more befitting their many missed chances.

But they didn’t do either of those things, and they got one of those miracle things, to boot. So that was neat.

Here’s what we learned from the game.

Florida’s offense can do good things

Question: Which offense on the field on Saturday averaged more yards per play?

If you said Florida’s, congrats: You, too, may have paid attention to the full game ... or you probably understand the point of rhetorical questions in writing.

In any case, Florida averaged 6.7 yards per play (YPP), about half a yard better than Tennessee’s 6.1. And while that average was boosted a full yard per play by Feleipe Franks finding Tyrie Cleveland behind the defense for 63 yards and six points on the game’s final play — strip that play out, and Florida gained 317 yards on 56 plays, for 5.7 YPP — one has to recall that a) Florida also mustered a woeful 3.6 YPP against Michigan, b) that final play really does count, I promise, and c) Florida’s offense had last topped 6.5 YPP last October against Missouri.

This offense had the same offensive line as it did against Michigan, and the same personnel — with its best and most versatile running back and its best and most versatile wide receiver still suspended — as well. It got explosive plays out of five different players — Cleveland, Brandon Powell, and Kadarius Toney through the air, and Malik Davis and Lamical Perine on the ground — and at opportune times. It really stepped up in the fourth quarter, when Florida needed it most: Davis’s 74-yard scamper was one of three shoulda-been touchdowns in the frame, all by Florida’s offense, and the interception Franks threw that put the game in jeopardy was relegated to a footnote thanks to his heroics on the next drive.

There is still plenty to work on, of course. Two of those explosive plays ended in fumbles, after all, and it would be a good thing to hit a 63-yarder before triple zeroes. Florida should still probably let Franks air it out more, and might need to work on who it targets — especially because Franks is clearly not fully ready to work through multiple reads consistently, and because its running backs’ skill sets are limited enough that their respective presences on the field are liable to tip off defenders. The line gelling enough to be an asset to rely on rather than a liability to plan around would be helpful — though Florida did a great job of planning around it on Saturday.

But those things are far less important, I think, than Florida finding things it does well and being able to work from that foundation. Franks likes throwing deep. Cleveland is explosive. Toney is murder on two feet in space. Davis is faster than any other back. We suspected as much this summer, and going back, but now there is evidence from a Saturday against a decent team of all of those things being true, at least momentarily.

Work from that truth, and good things may follow.

Florida’s offense still needs to help its defense

For three-plus quarters, Florida’s defense was generally pretty good. Sure, John Kelly was a slippery piece of dynamite, and Marquez Callaway got one big play over Marco Wilson, but that was the full list of truly scary stuff Tennessee had going, seemingly, and the Vols bogged down in Florida territory repeatedly, as a good, young defense took advantage of some brain-dead play-calling to stave off touchdowns and force field goals that didn’t go true.

The fourth quarter, for the most part, was baaad.

Tennessee’s drives in the fourth, after C.J. Henderson’s pick-six (which, yes, somehow happened in the fourth quarter): Seven plays, 49 yards, missed field goal; five plays, 80 yards, touchdown; two plays, 75 yards, touchdown; eight plays, 31 yards, field goal.

That was more than half of Tennessee’s total offense on the day, accrued over about 14 minutes of game clock against a tired defense that generally played like it. Florida wasn’t great at tackling on the day, but its effort and angles went from good to grotesque in the fourth. Quinten Dormady got time to throw and found receivers. Kelly was magnificent, apart from a drop of what would’ve been the go-ahead touchdown, and exactly zero Florida defenders were a match for him. The good things that can be said about Florida’s defense in the fourth are things to be said about its resilience on that last drive, and its young defensive backs’ pass coverage.

But I also think that has a lot to do with just how gassed that defense was.

Those four drives mentioned above? Tennessee ran 22 plays over that span to Florida’s 10 — and two of the three Florida drives during that span covered one and two plays, respectively. Tennessee also ran 72 plays to Florida’s 57 on the day, and had two three-and-outs in the second half — one on the first drive of the half, and the other terminating in Henderson’s pick-six.

The Gators had to play defense in high-leverage situations all day. They only gave up 20 points, and only broke down late. And they can point to Florida’s offense never quite giving them true breathing room — Florida never led by more than 10 points, and the defense got the Gators to that plateau first — or time to exhale.

Here’s hoping we’re not waiting to see that all year.

This team will fight

It would have been easy to turtle, to knuckle under, to give in and/or give up in this game. Tennessee has fought against Florida of late — you’ll recall the Vols sprang a comeback on the Gators that was even bigger and even more shocking and even more comprehensive in 2016, and built a lead that came tumbling down in 2015.

Florida didn’t quite answer that 2016 comeback, and so Tennessee won. Florida answered the bell in 2015, and so Florida won. Florida did the latter again this year.

I don’t want to put too much stock in a magical, miraculous ending being a sustainable thing for Florida, because it’s not. No team in sports will ever be lucky enough to rely on that sort of stuff working out. But the foundation for it may well be poured.

Florida didn’t give up in this game because it doesn’t give up, generally, even when there has been ample reason to. I’ve written extensively about every Florida football game here at this site since 2011, and have thus seen some dire situations and frustrating circumstances.

The only time I think Florida has “quit,” even arguably, in that span, was in the 2016 Citrus Bowl against Michigan — in an exhibition that meant nothing more than lingering bad feelings for a summer, ultimately. And while “quitting” is one of the truly unforgivable things for most fans, and something I try not to accuse any team of doing as a result, I wouldn’t hesitate to call that if I’ve seen it.

I just haven’t. Florida fights. Florida doesn’t always win, but it almost always fights.

You can work with that.