Silverberg: Vols back to square one after loss to Gators

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

It didn’t feel as ugly as it did a season ago, but the final deficit was actually worse. Tennessee committed four turnovers Saturday against Florida as opposed to the six last season in Knoxville. Jarrett Guarantano and Brian Mauer combined to throw three interceptions and the Vols mustered only three points during Tennessee’s 34-3 loss to the Gators in The Swamp.

While it didn’t feature the quick pileup of turnovers or a fumble through the end zone, Florida controlled this game from the first drive and never appeared threatened by the Vols as Kyle Trask went 20-28 for 293 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his first start since his freshman year of high school.

The three points for Tennessee are the lowest the Vols have scored in the series since a 31-0 loss in Knoxville in 1994. The margin of victory is the most for Florida over Tennessee since the 59-20 beating Tim Tebow and Co. handed the Vols in 2007.

Tennessee’s best chance at a touchdown came on its second possession after Trask was stripped of the ball and the Vols recovered at the Florida 19-yard line. The Vols drove to the Florida 3, but Guarantano’s pass over the middle bounced off Jauan Jennings and Trey Dean made a diving interception in the end zone.

Tennessee didn’t get much on offense for the rest of the first half. Guarantano was intercepted by Marco Wilson on Tennessee’s next possession, which led to a Florida field goal. The Vols went three and out on their final two series of the first half and Lamical Perine punched it in on fourth and goal from a yard out on the final play of the half to give Florida a 17-0 lead at the break.

Brian Mauer began the second half under center for Tennessee. He played three series and helped Tennessee get on the board after Brent Cimaglia hit his ninth field goal of the year. After a Florida touchdown Mauer tried to force a pass on Tennessee’s next drive and the tipped pass was intercepted by Amari Burney.

Mauer’s third drive picked up a first down on a four-yard run by Quavaris Crouch, but ended when he overthrew Josh Palmer down the sideline. Guarantano reemerged late in the third quarter and drove Tennessee into Florida territory, but Eric Gray lost a fumble to start the fourth quarter and the Gators ate up most of the final period with a pair of scoring drives.

Guarantano finished 10-17 for 107 yards. Mauer was 4-11 for 44 yards. Florida recorded four sacks to Tennessee’s two, both by Daniel Bituli, and the Gators outgained Tennessee 441-239 on the afternoon.

There isn’t much to point to as far as positives go for Tennessee. It was easy to point to the six turnovers Tennessee committed at home against the Gators a year ago. Four is far too many, but Florida committed three turnovers of their own and took more points off the board in the first half when Trask was stopped on a fourth down run at the Tennessee 30.

Sure, Tennessee didn’t have its best day, but neither did Florida. Not offensively anyway. Along with the three turnovers Florida is still having trouble in the running game. The Gators averaged less than three and a half yards per attempt on Saturday, finishing with 128 yards on 37 carries.

It’s not a matter of “shoulda, woulda, coulda” when a team loses by 31 and fails to score a touchdown. At that point major changes in execution, on-field personnel or the gameplan need to be made in order to turn a season around. Tennessee has two weeks to do that before it hosts Georgia.

Jennings continues to be key for the Vols

He had a pair of poor mistakes, but Jennings was still productive in the passing game, catching seven balls for 73 yards. He made catches in traffic and was difficult for Florida to cover and had a pair of catches early to push Tennessee across the 50 on the Vols’ first drive.

The interception in the end zone is on him and Jeremy Pruitt reiterated that after the game and Jennings also committed a kick catch interference penalty while on the punt coverage unit. The penalty was a mistake, but credit Jennings for wanting to still be out on the field at that point in the game.

Jennings was a big part of Tennessee’s upset over Auburn a season ago. He’s made big plays in most of Tennessee’s biggest victories since he’s been in Knoxville. Tennessee will need to continue to find ways to get him the ball if the Vols are to turn this season in a better direction.

Pruitt’s “ball-hawking” defense kept it from being worse

Tennessee was going to need to force takeaways if it was going to have a shot against Florida. The Vols had a fumble recovery overturned because Warren Burrell was out of bounds when he first touched the football. Tennessee stripped Trask two plays later to get the ball back in the red zone for what should’ve led to a Vols touchdown.

After Mauer’s interception Florida was facing third and long inside field goal range and Tennessee kept Florida scoreless when Theo Jackson undercut a corner route and picked off Trask. On Florida’s next possession Jackson broke up a pass in the end zone that was then intercepted by Alontae Taylor.

Tennessee struggled defending the pass for most of the game, but the Vols were opportunistic when Florida got sloppy.

Darrell Taylor another no show

Taylor didn’t get into the backfield a whole lot against Florida and finished with only one quarterback hurry. The SEC’s returning sack leader has just one a third through the season. A player who had three sacks against Georgia a season ago needed to have a big game in Gainesville and didn’t.

Bituli had a strong performance and Henry To’oto’o has shown a lot of promise, but Taylor was supposed to be the player causing the most havoc in opposing backfields. The Vols finished with just three tackles for loss in The Swamp. Taylor has to help energize the defense.

Florida took the game out of Tennessee’s hands early

The Vols had no answers for Florida’s defense and had to turn to the passing game early and often. Ty Chandler and Eric Gray combined for just 16 carries and 61 yards on the ground and neither one caught a pass out of the backfield.

Tennessee’s offensive line couldn’t get a big push up front to help the running game and the Vols’ 1-2 punch of Chandler and Gray was essentially nonexistent for the majority of the game.

The secondary was one of Tennessee’s biggest liabilities

Yes, the Vols intercepted Trask twice, but for the most part the middle of the field was lava for Tennessee’s defense. Alontae Taylor was burned by Jacob Copeland down the sideline, but got bailed out when Copeland dropped the pass from Trask. Trask constantly had open receivers over the middle of the field and needed only five plays to score a touchdown on the Gators’ opening drive. Both passes on that drive were to open targets over the middle of the field, including the touchdown to Kyle Pitts.

Florida was adamant about establishing the run, which prevented the Gators from taking advantage of what it had in the passing game. Tennessee’s corners couldn’t keep up in man coverage and Nigel Warrior got caught looking at an underneath route as Freddie Swain ran right by him for Trask’s second touchdown toss.

What’s next?

Tennessee has next Saturday off before hosting Georgia on Oct. 5.

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