Down 21-3 at halftime to the No. 19 Florida Gators, Butch Jones and his No. 14 ranked Tennessee team appeared to be on the brink of failing to live up to the expectations once again.
One more good half from Florida (or another bad one from Tennessee) would vault the Gators to 4-0 on the season and more importantly cement them on top of the SEC East for the time being.
One more bad half and the Volunteers would have been extremely disadvantaged in the race to the SEC title game, and perhaps some questions would have started to pop up regarding Jones and his ultimate ceiling in Knoxville. After all, the Vols barely beat Appalachian State to start the season and they allowed Ohio — a four touchdown underdog — to stick with them in a way-too-close 28-19 win.
Heading into the season, Tennessee was thought of as a potential dark horse for the College Football playoff and the Volunteers were certainly a favorite to win the SEC East.
The Gators out-gained the Vols 300-162 in the first half, though, and Tennessee had given the ball back two times. One was a fourth-and-goal from the Florida one that the Vols couldn’t punch in through the air. The other was a Joshua Dobbs interception on third-and-goal from the Florida seven.
Down 21-3 at halftime, all of the expectations for Tennessee seemed nowhere near becoming a reality.
And then the Vols woke up…
Another Dobbs interception to start the second half seemed to bury Tennessee before it even got started, but credit to the Vols’ quarterback for putting that and the first half behind him. Frankly, credit the whole team for that, because it’s not easy to make that big of a comeback against any opponent, let alone a ranked SEC rival.
Tennessee wound up scoring 38-straght points in the second half, dominating the Gators in yardage to the tune of 336 yards to 102.
It was a complete flip of the script, and Dobbs played a huge role in that. He was responsible for all five of the Vols’ second-half touchdowns, throwing four and running one in to put the game out of reach for Florida with about eight minutes left in the game.
The 6-foot-3, 210 pound senior from Alpharetta, Ga., finished the game completing 16-of-32 passes for 319 yards, four touchdowns and the aforementioned two interceptions. He also rushed 17 times for 80 yards and a score, averaging a healthy 4.7 yards an attempt.
Joshua Dobbs was a different QB in the 2nd half. pic.twitter.com/jE78kVpEzb
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 24, 2016
“Simple, just execution,” Dobbs said after the game when asked what shifted in Tennessee’s play between halfs. “We were shooting ourselves in the foot the whole first half and even on that first drive, whether it was bad ball location on my part or not making catches just simple things. We came into the locker room saying don’t panic. It’s simple we just have to execute, play our brand of football. Once we start executing that when the success came.”
The Vols also found a way to execute on defense, which was easier said than done without players such as star linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who was out with a shoulder injury, Darrin Kirkland and Cameron Sutton.
After giving up 300 total yards to the Gators in the first half, Tennessee bounced back to allow only 102 second-half yards to Florida — which included just 19 yards rushing. Junior defensive end Derek Barnett led the way for UT with two sacks in the third quarter and junior defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. picked off an Austin Appleby pass, which then led to a touchdown drive by the Vols’ offense.
Even though Reeves-Maybin didn’t play, he did speak to reporters about the gravity of the win for Tennessee after the game, saying, “We had a lot of talks, I’ll take it back to our first recruiting class, and we all said we just want to get Tennessee back to the top. I feel like today was a big stepping-stone in getting Tennessee back to the top. I feel like this win goes back to my freshman year and that goal that we all set for each other.”
For Tennessee, it was the first win against Florida since 2005. The Gators had beaten the Vols 11-straight times, which goes to show just how big of a win it was for Jones and his team. Not only was it a season-definer for the Volunteers, but it was a possible program changer.
It was a statement win for Tennessee.
Not only did the Vols display grit, toughness and a never-give-up attitude, but they proved to the college football world that they’re the team to beat in the SEC East — and perhaps they will live up to the expectations.