Tuesday, September 27, 2016

UF Football: The Streak Is Over

After 11 years, the streak has finally ended. Last Saturday, the No. 19 Florida Gators (3-1, 1-1 SEC) dropped their first game of the year with a 38-28 loss to the No. 14 Tennessee Volunteers (4-0, 1-0 SEC).

This game was a tale of two halves.

In the first half, Florida was rolling. The offense was clicking behind backup quarterback Austin Appleby and the defense was stifling Tennessee. Florida's lead grew as large as 21-0 and at the half they led 21-3. It looked like a twelfth straight win was in the bag. It would be the same old story as every other year.

Then, the second half happened.

Tennessee, determined to end over a decade of frustration, came roaring back. They put up 35 unanswered points and the Gators' 18-point lead turned into a 38-21 deficit. The Florida offense had vanished. They managed four total yards of offense and failed to record a single first down in the third quarter. They would muster just one more touchdown to provide the Gator Faithful with a glimpse of hope.

When the clock expired, the grim reality began to set in. For the first time since 2004, the Tennessee Volunteers had defeated the Florida Gators in the sport of football. Fittingly enough, the Gators scored 28 points in that loss as well.

Making his first start for the Gators, back up quarterback Austin Appleby played well (at least in the first half). In the tough road environment of Neyland Stadium, the graduate transfer completed 23 of 39 passing attempts for 296 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. He also was the team's second leading rusher as he ran seven times for 24 yards.

Appleby's arm was the main source of offense as the Gator running game was nonexistent for most of the day. Out of Florida's running back quartet, only Jordan Scarlett proved to be relevant on the ground as he carried the ball 10 times for 44 yards and one touchdown. He and Appleby accounted for more than two thirds of Florida's 117 total rushing yards.

In the receiving corps, Antonio Callaway was the leading yard-getter as he hauled in four receptions for 134 yards but with no touchdowns. The leading receivers in terms of receptions were tight end DeAndre Goolsby and running back Jordan Cronkrite, who both had five receptions for 26 yards and a touchdown.

True freshman wideout Freddie Swain also made an impact as he caught his second career touchdown in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 27 yards on two receptions. It's also worth mentioning that Brandon Powell, who had just one reception for nine yards, was ejected in the third quarter for "punching" Tennessee defensive back Rashaan Gaulden.

The offense tallied 402 total yards when it was all said and done. Appleby was sacked just twice and his interception did not come until the early stages of the fourth quarter.

One of the top-ranked defenses in the country was exposed in this game. Tennessee torched Florida for 498 total yards as the Gators allowed their first rushing touchdown of the year and four passing touchdowns.

The defense could not get to Vols' quarterback Josh Dobbs. Only managing one sack on the senior, Florida was chasing Dobbs all over the field as he ran 17 times for 91 yards and a touchdown. With his arm, Dobbs set new personal bests as he completed 16 of his 32 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns. Had Florida not picked him off twice, this game could have been a rout.

The only man to bring Dobbs down in the backfield was defensive lineman Jordan Sherit. He finished the game with eight tackles, good for third best among Gator tacklers in the contest. Ahead of Sherit, fellow defensive lineman Bryan Cox Jr. had nine tackles.

Trumping all Gators for the most tackles in this game, linebacker Alex Anzalone had 12 wrap-ups. Along side the redshirt junior in the linebacking corps, senior Jarrad Davis was also a big asset as he record seven tackles.

In the secondary, safety Marcus Maye led all defensive backs in tackles as he notched eight in the game. In regards to interceptions, both cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor had one a piece. Wilson's pick came on third and goal in the end zone to preserve Florida's 14-0 lead in the second quarter. Tabor's came at the start of the third quarter as Florida led 21-3.

The secondary only broke up two passes the whole game. Marcus Maye made a stop on fourth down and goal in the first quarter and nickelback Duke Dawson deflected a pass on third down in the second quarter.

It was incredible how Florida's defense imploded in the second half. Tennessee did what they wanted offensively and humbled a very proud Gator defensive unit.

Special Teams
Special teams from a kicking standpoint did not negatively affect the Gators on Saturday. Eddy Pineiro had no field goal attempts and nailed all four of his extra point attempts. Of his four kickoffs, three of them cleared the end zone for touchbacks.

In the punting aspect, Johnny Townsend continued to dominate. He punted eight times, averaged 48.6 yards per punt, and was able to angle one inside the Tennessee 20-yard line. Half of his punts were over 50 yards with his longest traveling 59 yards.

In the return game, there were some problems. Antonio Callaway mishandled his first punt of the game and was bailed out by his defense after a goal line stand. Fast forward to the fourth quarter, and Callaway's returning woes struck again.

Down 38-28 and needing a good return, Florida received the ultimate self-inflicted wound as Callaway backed up and called a fair catch at the two-line. This mental error baffled everybody and ultimately sealed Florida's fate.

Final Takeaway:
September 24th, 2016, was a tough day for many Gator fans. This was no average loss, it was a humbling loss delivered from a rival. The Gators grew complacent beating Tennessee every year. It became an expectation, and with that expectation the fight and desire slowly lessened.

Tennessee wanted this victory more and I give them credit for fighting back and snatching it from Florida. Their defense turned it up and stymied a Gator offense that took on a conservative, "play not to lose" mentality in the second half. On offense, the Vols capitalized on the arrogance and fatigue of the Gator defense.

Florida thought they were untouchable every third Saturday in September, and for 11 years they were. That's the thing about streaks though, they were made to be broken. How the Gators respond to this loss moving forward will shape this football team's character and attitude moving forward.

Some players are comparing this to the Ole Miss loss in 2008. After the famous Tebow speech following that game, Florida ripped through their opponents and won the school's third national championship.

Will that be the case here? Or will the Gators spiral out of control and fall out of the rankings? Only time and eight more games will tell.

The SEC East is by no means loss. If Florida wins out and Tennessee slips up against Georgia, Texas A&M, or Alabama, then the Gators are right back in the hunt for a second consecutive trip to Atlanta. It's a long season, and Florida needs to take it just one game at a time.

The Gators will look to return to their winning ways as they take on the Vanderbilt Commodores (2-2, 0-1 SEC) in Nashville on noon this Saturday. The game can be seen on the SEC Network and heard on the Gator IMG Sports Network. With Luke Del Rio still hurt, Austin Appleby will make his second start as a Florida Gator.

To no one's surprise, I have Florida bouncing back and getting an easy "W" against Vandy. Let's just hope the noon start time doesn't affect the Gators like it did in last year's 9-7 homecoming victory over the Commodores.

As for Tennessee, their fans are pretty happy up in Rocky Top after getting this monkey off their back. They can't relish in this victory too long, however, as they travel to Athens to take on the Georgia Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1 SEC) at 3:30 p.m this Saturday.

This is a huge SEC East matchup and will play a pivotal role in shaping up the divisional race as the season continues. The game can be seen on CBS, and my pick for a winner is Georgia.

*All stats accredited to FloridaGators.com, & Winsepdia

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