For three quarters it looked like the streak might finally be broken with Tennessee pulling out all the stops using trick plays and some tough running to take a two score lead at 27-14.
The Gators looked all but dead before true freshman quarterback Will Grier led the Gators on a 6 minute 17 play touchdown drive which got them within six at 27-21 with under four minutes remaining in the game.
The home crowd which had largely been taken out of the game came alive after the touchdown and helped to spur the comeback effort.
After true freshman receiver Antonio Callaway scored on a 63 yard pass play, pandemonium ensued inside the Swamp.
It was a huge win for the Gators keeping the streak alive and moving the team to 2-0 in the SEC and 4-0 overall.
Perhaps, even more importantly, a young team showed resilience and resolve which certainly bodes well for the future.
However, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns for the Gators.
Let’s take a look a quick look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Tennessee game.
Direct TV Will Grier
For three quarters, Grier was cable Will Grier who appeared more to be auditioning for Dancing With The Stars with his brother Hayes than quarterback at the University of Florida.
His happy feet and tentative play had doomed too many series to count and fans held out little hope of a comeback before Direct TV Will Grier showed up to save the day with ten minutes left in the game.
Showing guts and determination, Grier shook off his earlier tentativeness and stood tall in the pocket delivering several clutch passes while leading the Gator offense on a 17 play, 86 yard touchdown drive.
Additionally, Direct TV Will Grier showed up on fourth down as well with the Gators going 5-5 on fourth down for 123 yards and and the game winning touchdown.
No word on how the coaching staff figures to get Direct TV Will Grier in the game sooner against Ole Miss.
Kelvin “Don’t call me Fred” Taylor
Not Fred, a third year junior, arguably played the most complete game of his career against the Volunteers.
He went the distance at running back finishing with 102 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns. He ran hard all afternoon showing patience and a quick burst through the hole setting up his blockers well and getting upfield quickly.
His best run was a 47 yarder that set up the Gators’ (and his) first td. He snuck through a small crease at the line breaking a tackle and then juking a defender before showing some speed to get into the secondary.
But, despite his great rushing day, his best execution was in the passing game, repeatedly grading out perfect in blitz pickup, an area he had previously struggled mightily.
The staff said afterwards the plan was to let Taylor show what he could do and he responded perfectly.
Considering the brouhaha over Coach Mac’s sideline tirade at Taylor two games ago, it was a good sight to see Kelvin not only get the start but to finally play up to the level expected of him coming out of high school as a five star recruit.
The Offensive Line
The young, inexperienced, and oft-maligned Florida Gator offensive line came into the Tennessee game knowing it faced its toughest test to date with the talented and experienced Volunteer defensive front seven.
Sure enough they did have their hands full all game with the relentless pass rush and stiff run defense. But, despite a few issues, for the most part they played a very sound football game.
And considering they played much of the game with three true freshman (Martez Ivey, Fred Johnson, and Tyler Jordan) the performance was nothing short of miraculous, particularly on the last two scoring drives.
Antonio Callaway/Brandon Powell
Callaway, only a true freshman, played like an upperclassman on Saturday finishing with five catches for 112 yards (22.4 YPC) and the game winning 63 yard touchdown.
However, it was Brandon Powell who made the play of the game springing Callaway on the touchdown. He broke off his downfield route and made a diving block that took out one defender directly, another indirectly, and slowed the third.
From there, the speedy Callaway turned on the jets and won the foot race to the end zone a play that will haunt Tennessee fans and players for many years to come.
Powell had a good receiving night as well finishing with 5 catches for 64 yards, a touchdown, and a huge fourth down reception that set up the touchdown.
It’s not often we talk about the punter, but Townsend needs to be given his due here. He brought a silver lining to the inconsistent offensive play throughout Saturday’s contest by booming punts finishing with 7 punts for a whopping 49.6 yards per punt average.
His booming punts, including a couple of 60+ yarders and a 57 yarder, continuously flipped the field for the Gators and kept Tennessee behind the chains facing long fields all game long.
Beside the late game heroics of Grier, Callaway, and Powell, Townsend might have been the game MVP for his efforts. Certainly deserving of a game ball.
Cable (First Three Quarters) Will Grier
For all his fourth quarter heroics, Will Grier’s play prior to those last two drives was anything but heroic. On the first play of the game he missed an open Callaway and ended up going three and out.
In between that series and the Powell touchdown, Grier was average at best and terribly inconsistent. All too often he abandoned plays too early not seeing open receivers while trying unsuccessfully to make plays with his legs.
When he did stand in the pocket and throw, he often did so out of rhythm, double clutching throws, and missing open receivers. He did make throws here and there just not nearly enough.
“You’re going to ask probably about the quarterback,” McElwain said of Grier. “He played ok. Did some good things, did a lot of things he needs to get better at. But the biggest thing there is he had the opportunity to learn what it means to play in an SEC game.”
His play was inconsistent enough to leave coach McElwain unwilling to end the quarterback competition and name him the starter as many expected with his comeback efforts and Treon Harris coming off a suspension.
He’s had literally every opportunity to win the starting job but has been unable to seize control. And considering Treon has seemingly done everything to lose the job with the suspension and less than stellar play in games, Grier’s inability to win the job outright is troublesome for the Gators.
While the Gators pass rush continues to be a pleasant surprise, they’re second in the SEC with 14 sacks through four games, the front seven continues to struggle against the run.
The Gators gave up 254 yards rushing (5.0 YPC) to a Tennessee team which had been struggling in the run game.
In their defense, Tennessee QB Josh Dobbs and RB Jalen Hurd were tough, slippery, physical players who both possess surprising speed and quickness.
Nevertheless, the Gators efforts to stop the run have been inconsistent all season. They’ve given up far too many long running plays on the season and continued that against Tennessee.
They’ll need to continue to correct mistakes before facing the better running teams on their schedule including Georgia and Florida State.
Coming into season all the focus was on the Gators deep and talented defense. Many felt they could rival some of the Gators best defenses including the 2012 and 2008 squads.
However, oddly, one of the things that the top defenses do well that this one has struggled at is tackling.
And they got exposed against Tennessee.
In Monday’s media session, coach Mac was asked if the staff had counted missed tackles during film study and he said of course they did before grinning and saying “next”.
While he wouldn’t disclose the number they had counted, when the number 22 was bantered about, Mac replied saying it was much higher.
Tackling issues haven’t been much of a problem this season but were a huge problem against the Vols.
While some of the struggles on Saturday were related to the surprising quickness and power of Hurd and Dobbs, a bigger issue all season has been an inability to wrap up. All too often guys are either trying for a big hit or to strip the football.
“We’ve been really good tacklers the first three games then all of the sudden didn’t wrap up,” McElwain lamented. “Tried to strip the ball instead of grab cloth. All the things you teach every single day.”
Big hits are fun for the fans and turnovers are great for the team but in this league backs are too physical.
They can bounce off hard hits and can run through arm tackles and strip attempts. That big hit means little if the guy you hit is still running 20 yards downfield.
Third Down Conversion
Another season long issue that continued against Tennessee was third down struggles.
The Gators wee a pitiful 3-15 on third down against the Vols and are 19-54 (.352) on the season, good for 100th in the nation.
In coach McElwain’s opening comments to his Monday press conference he brought up that going 5-5 in fourth down was nice, but the team needs to do better on third down so they don’t have to rely on a fourth down play.
“Offensively not having to wait until fourth down to make plays, go ahead and make them on third down… That’d be good.”
They’ve been fortunate so far facing teams with struggling offenses. They’ve been able to win in spite of their third down struggles. Moving forward, they’ll need to be much more efficient on third down if they have a hope to win.
Against Ole Miss they’ll need to control the football or they could find themselves in an insurmountable home early.
What does your good, bad, and ugly list look like?