All week long Tennessee’s receivers talked trash to the Florida secondary, at least that’s what head coach Will Muchamp told them. By the time Matt Elam and the Gators took the field Saturday afternoon against the Volunteers, they had had enough.
“The week coming in this week, these two guys was talking a lot of trash about what they was going to do to us, how we was too small, how we was too slow,” Elam said. “They basically were saying how they was in a groove and they were going to dominate us.”
Muschamp made sure his team didn’t take too kindly to their comments. He made a poster that had a (fabricated) quote from Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter.
“Throw a jump-ball or something like that. I’ll come down with it over the Florida DBs.”
Elam responded on Twitter, laughing at the Tennessee receivers talking trash and criticizing their lack of impressive game film after playing Montana and Cincinnati.
Tennessee receiver Da’Rick Rogers responded “Tweets of a terrified DB.”
When the players finally took the field, tensions were high, and Elam and Rogers had to be separated just before the game began as they jawed back and forth.
“Da’Rick Rogers, it was a lot of bickering going back and forth,” Elam said. “He was saying, he’s bigger than all us, so ‘you too small’ and things like that. I kept on telling him ‘you gonna get hit, you gonna get hit.’ I was just trying to hit him.”
While Florida’s secondary gave up 288 yards passing, the Gators were able to effectively limit Tennessee when it mattered en route to a 33-23 win.
After Florida got out to an early lead and forced Tennessee to rely primarily on its passing attack, the Gators’ secondary got to work, honed in after hearing how big and strong the Tennessee receivers were.
“We just look at it as another game, but when you get situations like this, it wires you and makes you treat it like a rivalry,” Elam said. “Situation like that, you have no choice but to treat it like a rivalry.”
Florida got an early break in the game when Hunter went down with a knee injury after catching his only pass of the game in the first quarter. He didn’t return.
“That was very big. He’s a very good player,” Elam said. “He’s a deep threat, and they couldn’t really get the ball downfield like they wanted.”
So Rogers was left alone to back up his trash talk. While the sophomore recorded five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown, the Gators did a good job limiting his impact on the game.
They slid protection to his side and lined up freshman Marcus Roberson against him for the majority of the game.
“You don’t want to go into a game and get beat by their guy,” Muschamp said. “We didn’t want to go in the game and get beat by their guy. Beat us with somebody else. Make them play left-handed against you.”
Muschamp’s motivational poster sparked the rest of the effort needed from his young group.
“All the DBs had [the poster] on their lockers, taped on their lockers,” Elam said. “That was all the motivation, how they was talking.”
Florida’s secondary wasn’t kidding about proving their physicality, either. The Gators were draped all over the Tennessee receivers all day long, resulting in six pass interference calls, one late hit on the sideline and one hold in the secondary.
That was fine with Muschamp, who thought his unit played well.
“I don’t want a call, but we’re going to play aggressive,” the first-year coach said. “We’re not going to play soft, I can tell you that.”
Elam said the penalties were just a result of playing an intense game the Gators wanted to win badly.
“Coach coming in said be physical, be physical with these receivers,” he said. “It was just in the moment, playing hard. Things like that happen.”
An improved pass rush also helped the Gators come up with their first forced turnovers through the air, as Florida racked up a pair of interceptions.
Sophomore defensive end Ronald Powell burst through the line on the first play of the second half, forcing Tyler Bray to scramble to his right. Bray threw up a hopeful pass that Josh Evans sat back on and intercepted.
Elam sealed the deal for Florida when Bray overthrew a ball on Tennessee’s last drive.
“It’s a relief, man. You go all week ‘we need interceptions, we need turnovers,’” Elam said. “Our goal on defense is three turnovers in the game. We go in, we like ‘we need turnovers, we need it’ and we get one it’s like a relief. We finally got one.”
Elam’s interception to effectively end the game brought the crowd of 90,744 to a thunderous roar as the Gators captured their first SEC win in the Muschamp era.
“I was praying for that the whole game, just getting a pick, man,” Elam said. “That was a great feeling closing the game out, getting a pick at the end. It was an overthrown ball and I just watched the ball the whole time and it fell right it my hands. It was very exciting.”
Florida’s secondary will have plenty to work on before its first road game of the year against Kentucky next week and a huge home test against Alabama the following week.
Eight penalties in the secondary won’t cut it, and giving up nearly 300 yards passing certainly isn’t something the Gators want to do on a regular basis.
But for Elam and Florida, the win over Tennessee was a start against a good passing attack.
“It was a great win, and it’s the first step to Atlanta,” he said. “That’s all our goal and dreams. Next week got another SEC game, so we’ve got to prepare for that.”