For as well as Florida played on defense for three quarters against Tennessee, Gator defenders were running on fumes in the final 15 minutes Saturday.
Florida’s bend-but-don’t-break defense, though, helped lead the team to its miraculous finish in its 26-20 win over the Vols at The Swamp.
Florida came up with a critical red zone stand when Tennessee had the ball first-and-goal at the nine-yard line, forcing the Vols to settle for a field goal to tie the score at 20 with 50 seconds left in the game.
“When it came down to it and we got in the red zone and we had to dig our heads in the dirt, you know, play and get a stop, we got that accomplished,” Florida sophomore linebacker David Reese said.
The red zone stand began with UF junior defensive lineman Cece Jefferson pressuring Vol quarterback Quinten Dormandy into an incompletion on first down. With Florida’s best cornerback, senior Duke Dawson, out with a head injury, Dormandy tested UF’s freshmen corners on the next two plays. But cornerback Marco Wilson came up with a big pass defense on second down, while cornerback CJ Henderson was solid in coverage on a third down Dormandy incompletion.
“We’ve got the best of the best,” Florida sophomore safety Chauncey Gardner Jr. said. “DBU. I’ll take my freshmen over any receiver in the country. You line it up, we play ball.”
Henderson also came up with a big defensive play, returning an interception 16 yards for a TD to put the Gators up 13-3 early in the fourth quarter. It was Henderson’s second pick-six in his first two games.
But because of Henderson’s defensive touchdown and because UF freshman running back Malik Davis fumbled the ball out of the end zone on a one-play offensive drive, time of possession played a factor in UF’s defense wearing down late. The Gators allowed 17 points and gave up 231 yards in the fourth quarter. Florida had allowed just 211 yards on defense through the first three quarters. Tennessee enjoyed a 20:30-9:30 advantage in time of possession in the second half.
“They wore on us a little bit and we did miss some tackles,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “Up to that point, I thought for the most part our guys did a heckuva job.”
Up 20-10 and with 5:13 left in fourth quarter, the Gators let Tennessee back into the game by allowing Tennessee to put together a quick, two-play, 75-yard TD drive, which cut UF’s lead to 20-17. Tennessee running back John Kelly, who finished the game with 141 yards rushing and 96 yards receiving, rumbled through UF missed tackles on a 52-yard run off a screen play.
“They made great adjustments, gave us different looks,” Reese said.
Reese finished the game with seven tackles and his first career interception. The 6-foot-1, 239 pound Reese set a physical tone early, meeting Kelly at the line of scrimmage on the first defensive play of the game for a stop for no gain. Reese and Kelly were youth football teammates outside Detroit, Michigan.
“It was just a little reunion, guys like that, playing in the SEC,” Reese said. “We stick together. We’re close.”