Florida football: Three things No. 22 Gators learned from USF win with Tennessee up next

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports
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Florida football has won 16 of its last 17 meetings against the Tennessee Volunteers.

But the No. 22 Gators will enter their matchup with the No. 12 Vols as 10.5-point underdogs on Saturday at Neyland Stadium (3:30 p.m., CBS).

Florida's first road test of the season will come against a Tennessee squad that's averaging 52 points per game under second-year coach Josh Heupel, who has the Vols off to a 3-0 start. Heupel has led Tennessee to a 10-6 mark through his first 16 games after posting a 28-8 record in three seasons at UCF.

More on Tennessee:Florida Gators' next opponent: Scouting report on the Tennessee Volunteers football team

Gator grades:Grading Gators in their tighter-than-expected game against South Florida

Too close for comfort:No. 21 Florida Gators survive USF scare 31-28. Here are our takeaways.

"You can see where Coach Heupel and his staff have improved in their time there," Florida coach Billy Napier said. "A lot cleaner product in all three areas of their team on film. Much cleaner football - offense, defense, and special teams - maybe compared to last year."

Napier is still trying to put his imprint on the Gators in his first season. Florida (2-1, 0-1 SEC) is coming off a closer-than-expected 31-28 win over USF, a game in which problems in the passing game and run defense materialized. 

"It wasn't perfect," Napier said. "We made a lot of mistakes in the game, but also think it was an opportunity for our team to show some character and to respond and handle adversity well, and we certainly did that."

Here are three things Florida learned from the USF win:

Gators run defense needs more discipline

In reviewing the tape, Napier said the biggest issue in Florida defending the run against USF was communication. The Bulls rushed for 286 yards on 6.2 yards per carry against the Gators, with running back Brian Battie (150 yards, 1 TD) and quarterback Gerry Bohanon (102 yards, 1 TD) both gaining more than 100 yards.

 "First, second, and third level being on the same page," Napier said. "And I think any time you run the quarterback in a lot of different ways - I'm talking eight, 10 different variables there relative to involving the quarterback and the edge player, and I think a lot of it was new."

Florida safety Tre'Vez Johnson (16) returns an interception against USF Saturday night.

Napier credited the adjustments the players and staff made after halftime. USF rushed for 88 yards in the second half after rushing for 198 yards in the first half.

 "At halftime, we went in the locker room and really cleaned it up," Napier said. "That's one of the good things that I see. It's like, okay, new concept. We're able to understand that. Here's the concept. Here's the call. Here's how we clean that up. And we didn't make the same mistake twice, which is good. We defended some of those plays better in the second half."

Led by Tre'Vez Johnson and Jalen Kimber, Florida's secondary is legit

Florida defensive backs Tre'Vez Johnson and Jalen Kimber each recorded interceptions against USF, with Kimber returning his 39 yards for a touchdown. For the season, UF ranks fifth in the SEC in pass defense (178.0 ypg) and tied for second in the conference in interceptions (4).

Cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. and safety Trey Dean also have been reliable in the back game.

"Turnover margin, that changes the game most of the time," Johnson said. "We try to stay ahead on that, especially on Saturdays, team that has the most turnovers is most likely going to win the game. That's our mentality. Still going to take the ball away, get the ball back to the offense, and give them the opportunity to score."

Montrell Johnson Jr., Trevor Etienne and the running game remains solid

Florida continues to generate big plays in the run game, with Montrell Johnson Jr.'s 62-yard TD run highlighting a night in which the Gators gained 217 yards rushing on 7.2 yards per carry.

Johnson Jr., Trevor Etienne and Nay'Quan Wright each scored rushing TDs to increase the Florida total to 8 rushing TDs on the season. Florida is averaging 212 rushing yards per game on 6.4 yards per carry, which ranks second in the SEC behind Alabama.

"We've got a chance to be great if we do the small things right and don't forget the fundamentals as the season goes on," Florida offensive lineman O'Cyrus Torrence said of the run game. "I feel like we just continue to do what got us here, the small things like hand placement, footwork, and stuff like that, and just all of us being on the same page." 

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