KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE — A year ago and this would have been impossible. The Florida Gators were front-runners and coming from behind against a ranked team on the road was simply out of the question. A year ago, when he looked down his bench in search of playmakers, Coach Urban Meyer felt lucky if he had one or two healthy enough to put on the field.
That was then. This is now. Last year’s Gators didn’t have what it takes to win on the road against good football teams. Last year when the Gators fell behind on the road and Urban Meyer not only had a lack of playmakers, but a team that lacked the kind of toughness you need to rally back from adversity. Last year, adversity meant a mild state of panic.
Saturday night at Neyland Stadium when he needed playmakers, he had plenty, and when he looked into his team’s eyes when they were ten points down in the third quarter, nobody was ready to throw in the towel.
Playmakers make plays and the sixth-ranked Gators had more playmakers than the number 13 Tennessee Vols. They also had the toughness they lacked a year ago when falling behind was a signal that the sky was falling. Consider Florida’s 21-20 come-from-behind win over the Vols a benchmark in the Meyer era. It’s the first signature win over a ranked team on the road and a true indicator of just how much the Gators have grown since last year.
“When we got down 17-7 in that kind of environment to that kind of team with that kind of talent and nobody really panicked, that was a heck of a job,” said Meyer after the Gators improved to 3-0, 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference.
Getting his team tough enough to handle adversity — much of which was self-imposed — was a process that began the day after the Gators beat Iowa in the Outback Bowl back in January. Tough teams win tough games in tough environments. That has been the sermon for months now and Saturday night Meyer saw how his team has taken it to heart.
“I’m not sure you can call them not tough more than we have,” said Meyer. “We challenged them and they answered it. From last year until this game we challenged them. We criticized them. We put them in situations where only tough people can really survive and I’d have to say that we’re a fairly tough football team after that game.”
Florida was in a need situation because the Gators didn’t capitalize on plentiful first half opportunities. Florida shot itself in the foot early and often, yet the Gators managed to stay in the game largely on the heels of a defense that bent a few times but really didn’t break. The Gators held the Vols to 220 net yards — minus eleven on the ground.
In the first half, the Vols managed only 103 yards of total offense, minus-eight on the ground, but they held the lead at 10-7 and they put together a 61-yard drive for a touchdown on their first possession of the second half. The Gators did their part to assist Tennessee with a 15-yard personal foul penalty on Marcus Thomas that gave the Vols a first down on the Florida 30. Erik Ainge followed that up with a 29-yard pass to Jayson Swain and three plays later, Montario Hardesty leaped over the pile on the right side for the touchdown with 8:40 remaining in the third quarter. James Wilhoit kicked the extra point to put Florida down 10, an impossible deficit last year when the Gators would have hit the panic button.
Not this year.
“We came back and everybody looked at each other and said we’re going to get our responsibilities together and come back and win this game,” said Brandon Siler. “There’s no time when I thought our guys were walking around thinking that we might lose.”
The no-panic Gators put together an eight-play, 72-yard drive that temporarily silenced the huge, pro-Tennessee crowd. What got the drive going was an uncharacteristic keeper on the option by Leak. Tennessee played the pitch all the way but Leak tucked it and ran for a nine-yard gain for a first down to the UT 38. On the next play, Leak connected with Caldwell for a 25-yard gain and then he hit Cornelius Ingram on a crossing pattern for 38 yards to the Tennessee 11.
Meyer inserted Tebow into the game on first down and the freshman carried on consecutive plays to get the ball to the four. At that point, Meyer put Leak back in and his senior quarterback connected with Dallas Baker for a four-yard touchdown with 1:16 remaining in the third quarter. Hetland’s extra point made it a 17-14 deficit.
Baker was challenged by Siler at the half to step it up and make plays. The senior wide receiver was best remembered by the Neyland Stadium crowd for a personal foul in the waning minutes of the 2004 game, a penalty that helped set up a 51-yard game-winning field goal by Wilhoit. This year, the Neyland crowd didn’t get any bonehead plays from Baker.
“At the half I told him you’re a playmaker, we need plays to be made, go do it,” said Siler.
Tennessee answered the Baker touchdown with a solid drive of its own, using quick passes by Ainge to his wide receivers to march the ball to the Florida 34 where the drive began to stall. Two straight dives into the line by Montario Hardesty were stuffed and on third down, Ainge was rushed into an incompletion. That brought on Wilhoit who knocked down a 51-yard field goal for a 20-14 UT lead.
At this point, Florida showed its character and the confidence that was lacking last year. The 65-yard touchdown drive got jump started when Wilhoit tried to kick the ball away from freshman kick returner Branden James. James, who had a 35-yard punt return in the first half and a 91-yarder for a touchdown that was called back due to an illegal block, was an imposing enough threat that Wilhoit kicked the ball out of bounds, giving the Gators good field position at their own 35 to start.
The drive was highlighted by a 26-yard run by DeShawn Wynn, who rushed for 104 yards on 22 carries. Wynn had carried 16 times for 96 yards in Florida’s first two games. Saturday night, he was the tough guy that got the tough yards up the middle for the Gators.
“We had a tailback run for 100 yards,” said Meyer. “That doesn’t happen very often against that defense. It’s time he became a tailback and he did.”
Wynn’s run put the ball on the UT 37. Two plays later the Gators faced third and five when Leak turned the ball upfield and tried to run for the first down. Wynn saw a hit coming and went into his slide but he thought he had first down distance.
“I thought I had it,” said Leak. “I looked at the sideline and I thought I had it. You never know how the referee is going to spot the ball but the big thing is that we scored on the drive.”
Faced with fourth and one at the UT 28, Meyer inserted freshman quarterback Tim Tebow into the game to run the ball and get the first down. On the night, Tebow had 29 yards on seven carries, but four times he got the first down, including this crucial play.
“That’s 230 pounds and you know he’s going to find a way to get in there,” said Meyer with a grin.
One play later, Leak hit Baker on a crossing route for the touchdown with 6:30 remaining and Hetland added the game-winning extra point.
This time it was Baker’s turn to tell Siler to step it up. As soon as he came off the field after scoring the touchdown, Baker went over to the defense and started encouraging them to make the necessary plays to stop the Vols.
“I had told him we’re going to get you the ball, you’re going to have to make some big plays,” said Siler. “He came back to me and said I made my big plays, now it’s your turn. That’s what we want. We think our defense is strong and we put it in our hands and we came through.”
The defense did its bend but not break routine on this final possession by the Vols, giving up four pass completions by Ainge, including a 16-yarder to Hardesty that had Tennessee ever so close to Wilhoit’s range.
With first and ten at the Florida 39, Siler came through with his big play. He broke through the Tennessee line on the blitz and nailed Ainge back at the UT 47. Ainge was called for intentional grounding on the play but the sack stood and it was second and 24 for the Vols. Ainge got seven yards back with a completion to Brent Smith but he was rushed into a bad throw on third down and on fourth down, on his final pass of the evening, he got picked off by Reggie Nelson, which is exactly what happened with his first pass of the night.
The Gators took over on their own 24 and got a first down on three straight carries by Wynn. Their time outs exhausted, the Vols could only watch as the Gators downed the ball and ran the clock out.
“We couldn’t have done this last year,” said Siler. “We didn’t have it in us.”
Florida dug itself into a hole in the first half even though the Gators had plenty of scoring opportunities. The Gators got their only touchdown of the half on their second possession, going 63 yards on seven plays, all but one of them on the ground. After earning a tough first down that took a couple of plays to make the final yard, the offense revved up when freshman Percy Harvin lined up at tailback, took a handoff from Leak and swung wide. He was into the Tennessee secondary quickly and had a 12-yard gain before the defense caught up with him. Harvin proved the perfect decoy on the next play when he went in motion to the outside, taking the Tennessee linebackers with him. Wynn took the handoff straight up the gut for eight yards to the UT 31.
Tebow made his first appearance on the next play, paying an immediate dividend when he took the snap and powered over right tackle for 10 yards. Leak came back into the game on the next play, play faked to Wynn, rolled left and threw back to his right, hitting Jemalle Cornelius on a crossing pattern for the touchdown.
The Gators held Tennessee after the kickoff and freshman Branden James showed why Meyer offered him a scholarship for the express purpose of juicing up the return game. Tennessee’s Dustin Colquitt boomed a towering 58-yard punt that sent James drifting back all the way to the Florida 13. James made the catch and moved upfield, juking his way through a pack of Tennessee defenders on his way to a 35-yard return to the Florida 48.
The Gators were in excellent position to capitalize on the good field position but on first down, Leak went back to the same play that worked for the touchdown only this time he didn’t have a receiver anywhere close to where he threw the ball. Jonathon Wade picked the ball off for the Vols and returned it to the Florida 49. Ainge went to Robert Meachem on back to back plays, hitting the big wide receiver for gains of 23 and eight yards to the Florida 14. On second down, Ainge tripped over his own feet for a five-yard loss and on then Jarvis Moss chased the UT quarterback down, forcing a throwaway pass that made the Vols settle for a James Wilhoit field goal with 2:36 remaining in the first quarter.
The Gators blew another scoring opportunity after the field goal. Starting on their own 20, the Gators looked to have the answer to the Tennessee score, driving nine plays to the UT 23. Along the way, Leak hit Bubba Caldwell for 11 yards, Harvin for 13 and Cornelius for eight yards and Wynn added a on the drive along with a 14-yard run up the middle by Wynn. But that’s where things stalled out. Wynn was hit for no gain on first down and then the Gators took a five-yard false start that put them back to the 28. On second down, Leak went deep down the middle to Caldwell, looking to get the score but he threw low and incomplete into double coverage instead of taking an open receiver underneath. Leak was sacked on third down for an eight-yard loss so Florida settled for a field goal attempt. Chris Hetland, a hero in the Gators’ 16-7 win over Tennessee last year in The Swamp, missed the first of two first half field goals when his 52-yard attempt came up three or four yards short.
The Vols took over on the Florida 36 and three plays later a gadget play caught the Gators napping. Lucas Taylor took the ball on what looked like a sweep to the right, but he pulled up and threw back to his right, finding LeMarcus Coker all alone down the Florida sideline for an easy 48-yard touchdown pass with 7:57 remaining in the half.
Florida blew another chance to score when James danced, dodged and sped through the Tennessee defense on what appeared to be a 91-yard punt return only to have the ball brought back to the 22 because of an illegal block in the back by Dorian Munroe. Florida dodged one of its own bullets on first down when Leak’s pass was picked off by Marvin Mitchell who ran it back for the score. However, that was negated because Tennessee’s J.T. Mapu was called for a blow to Leak’s head.
With new life, the Gators marched back up the field behind an 11-yard run by Wynn and a 13-yard Leak to Caldwell pass for a first down at the Tennessee 29. Once again, the Gators stalled out with three straight incompletions. Hetland missed his second field goal attempt with 1:08 remaining in the half.
“You look at what we did in the first half and how we came back in the second half,” said Siler. “We could have folded. Last year we would have. This year, we didn’t have any panic in us. We got in a hole and we dug our way out of it.”