Erroneous First Half Hands Tennessee Its First Loss Of 2023

Photo by University of Tennessee Athletics (@Vol_Football)

By Tucker Harlin

No. 11 Tennessee (2-1) fell at Florida (2-1) 29-16 Saturday in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The scenes looked all too familiar for the Vols as a first half meltdown led to its tenth consecutive loss to the Gators in Gainesville.

“It was an extremely disappointing start to the football game,” said Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel. “The first half… not good. Offense had the one drive, defense had the one stop, but other than that, not how you want to start.”

The Gators manufactured a lengthy possession to begin the game, eating away nearly half the first quarter. The drive saw heavy doses of a connection between Graham Mertz and Eugene Wilson for 44 yards. It ended in a blocked field goal attempt for the Gators.

Tennessee had no issue marching down the field on the following possession. After a couple of Jaylen Wright touches, Joe Milton connected with Squirrel White for 41 yards to get to Florida’s 11. The next play, Milton found Ramel Keyton on a fade route in the end zone, putting the Vols up seven.

Florida responded quickly. Trevor Etienne rumbled for 62 yards and a touchdown just four plays into the drive. However, the Vols blocked the extra point, making it 7-6.

After a Squirrel White reception for a first down, a false start put Tennessee in a hole it could not escape, forcing it to punt.

“It’s the beginning of the season, and we haven’t played in an environment like that thus far,” said Tennessee receiver Bru McCoy on the pre snap penalty. “Part of it’s just focus and being dialed into the things that we practice throughout the week. We just have to look back on what we didn’t do right and keep on moving forward.”

The Gators then manufactured an 82 yard scoring drive that finished with a 4-yard Montrell Johnson rush touchdown. The Gators went for two but could not convert, keeping the lead at 12-7.

“On our end, I just felt like there were a lot of mistakes,” said linebacker Aaron Beasley about the defense, which allowed Florida to convert on seven of eight third downs in the first half. “We really weren’t playing sound football in my opinion, just undisciplined on our part.”

On the second play of Tennessee’s next possession, Joe Milton was drilled as he tried to throw, and his pass fluttered into the arms of Florida defensive back Devin Moore. With the help of some additional penalty yardage, the return brought Florida to Tennessee’s 9-yard line. 

“It happened man,” said Joe Milton about the pick. “I can’t go back and change what happened, it’s totally on me.”

Florida’s possession ended in a Graham Mertz sneak at the 1-yard line, bolstering the Gators lead to 12.

After a Tennessee three and out, the Gators drove 55 yards for another score. Narrowly dodging a sack, Graham Mertz found Montrell Johnson for a screen pass. Johnson broke through a Jaylen McCollough arm tackle, and found the end zone. Florida went to the locker room at half ahead of Tennessee 26-7.

The Vols emerged from the locker room stronger than they entered it. They put together a drive that lasted a little over five minutes, but it stalled out at the Florida 24-yard line. Charles Campbell nailed a 42-yard field goal to end the drive, cutting the Gators’ lead to 16.

After a Gators three and out, the Vols once again took the ball deep into Florida territory. However, the Gators stuffed Jaylen Wright on fourth down at the Florida 19-yard line.

The cycle repeated itself to end the third quarter. The Gators punted deep in their own territory, and the Vols were able to cross the 50. The drive stalled out when Joe Milton underthrew a slipping Jabari Small, ending the third quarter down 16.

The Gators drove the ball inside the Vols 10, but ended up outside the 5-yard line and opted for points. Trey Smack nailed the chip shot field goal, extending Florida’s lead to 19.

The Vols had one more score in them on the following possession. Joe Milton connected with Bru McCoy for 55 yards down the Florida sideline. The Vols went for two but came up short as Joe Milton was shoved out of bounds well shy of the end zone.

The Vols got the ball back after the Gators ate nearly five more minutes off the clock. The offense moved quickly down the field but its drive stalled out with a low-thrown ball to Bru McCoy that resulted in an incompletion.

The game looked over, but Josh Heupel used a timeout with a handful of seconds left in an effort to get the ball back. What followed was a brawl on the field, and the teams had to play one more down due to the penalties.

“We had a chance to push one into the end zone,” Heupel said about the timeout. “Obviously by the end of it, you weren’t going to be able to have a full sequence of plays to try to get back into the end zone.”

The Vols return to Neyland Stadium next week to take on the UTSA Roadrunners. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. ET and the game will be broadcasted on SEC Network.