The scene was so familiar for Gator fans who were above the age of toddler in 2004: Florida 28, Tennessee 27, Vols driving with the clock running out, and set up the game winning field goal attempt.
But this time, the kick missed. Maybe because a 55 yard game winning field goal wasn’t supposed to be the way this one ended. And when that kick off the right foot of Aaron Medley flew to the right of the uprights by some two inches or so, reality set in: Florida, who had been left for dead, had perhaps the most unbelievable win over Tennessee in an 11 game streak filled with them.
After Florida went right down the field for a touchdown early in the first quarter, Tennessee totally dominated the game and Florida made mistakes left and right, particularly on defense. Not only did the Gators miss literally dozens of tackles, but they gave up several big plays that probably wouldn’t have worked had they been more alert. First, the Gators totally forgot to account for the right side of the field on a throwback to Josh Dobbs, who ran 58 yards for a touchdown. Then they got completely faked out on a fourth and one jump pass on a handoff, which led to another touchdown. And on a 3rd and goal from the 10, Florida’s defensive line fell asleep, allowing Jalen Hurd to run it in for a touchdown on a cutback.
But because this was Florida-Tennessee, the Volunteers gave the Gators enough goodies to stay in it.
Up 20-7 midway through the third quarter and seemingly in complete control of the game, Bryan Cox Jr. strip sacked Dobbs, and recovered at the Vols’ 29. Five plays later, Kelvin Taylor banged it in for his second touchdown to slice the lead to 20-14. The sequence was reminiscent of the Jalen Tabor forced fumble and subsequent touchdown a year ago in Knoxville, when all seemed lost until that play changed the game. Unlike last year’s game, though, Tennessee fought back from that mistake. The Vols put together a 16 play, 70 yard drive that ended with the aforementioned Hurd touchdown. But then Butch Jones gave Florida another gift. The six points on the Hurd run made it 26-14 with ten minutes to go in the game, but rather than go for two and make it an even two touchdowns, Jones elected to kick the extra point- a decision he would pay dearly for.
Florida’s offense had been, well, putrid all night. Following the Kelvin Taylor touchdown five minutes into the game through the Hurd touchdown five minutes into the fourth quarter- which is three full quarters of game action- Florida had just 172 yards of offense. The offensive line got manhandled on roughly two thirds of the offensive snaps, missing several blocks and just getting bullied by the Tennessee front all day. Will Grier hadn’t played badly at quarterback, but he made several miscues, including floating a deep ball where there was nobody but the Tennessee safety to catch it.
But because this was a Florida-Tennessee game, Will Grier and the offense woke up at just the right time.
With his back to the wall, Grier directed a 17 play, 86 yard touchdown drive that included two fourth down conversions to keep the game alive, and ended with a five yard strike to Brandon Powell to cut the lead back down to 27-21 with four minutes remaining. That put the game in the hands of the defense, which had looked horrible for most of the night.
But because this was a Florida-Tennessee game, the defense woke up at just the right time.
Jalen Hurd ran twice for two yards apiece to force a third and six, and then the Gators’ defensive line converged on Dobbs for a game saving sack. The Vols then punted to Antonio Callaway, who broke off a solid return across the Tennessee 40. What happened next was pretty predictable to anyone who watched the game; Florida’s offense ran three plays and lost four yards, setting up a 4th and 14 that nobody can honestly tell me they expected the Gators to pick up the first down, let alone a touchdown that would top Chris Rix to PK Sam as the single most incredible play in the history of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
But because this was a Florida-Tennessee game, that’s exactly what they did.
(PSA: I declare that this play shall forever be known as “The Thri11 in Ben Hi11.” I also declare that Brandon Powell shall be the first to get the goodies at whatever bowl game the Gators go to for making that block, and that Will Grier, Antonio Callaway shall get them next.)
Yet as you could tell from looking at the clock, the game wasn’t over. Tennessee swiftly moved into field goal range, and gave Aaron Medley an opportunity to be the ultimate hero as the guy who beat Florida, which was eerily reminiscent of the way the 2004 game ended- the last time Tennessee beat Florida. His kick sailed way right, and Florida started celebrating. But Jim McElwain had called timeout right before the kick (NOT to ice the kicker, but because Florida had twelve men on the field). So Medley got to try again- try to win the game, break the streak and earn himself free meals in Knoxville for the rest of his life.
But because this was a Florida-Tennessee game, his kick missed by one or two coats of paint.
And Florida- despite being outplayed, despite making countless fundamental mistakes, despite facing their largest deficit against Tennessee since 2003, and despite not really deserving to win- won.
I sincerely believe that Tennessee had the better team yesterday. I also believe- and on this, I expect many Gator fans to agree with me- that Tennessee played better for the majority of the 60 minute game, having out gained Florida on the day 419-392 despite the Gators’ fourth quarter explosion. And on top of both those things, I believe that Tennessee wanted the win more; ten straight losses to Florida, plus the desperation of avoiding a 2-2 start with Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina still to play had them playing with the motivation of starved tigers.
But because this was a Florida-Tennessee game, Florida won anyway.
When I went to bed early last October following Florida’s ugly 10-9 win over Tennessee, I believed that the Vols had everything they could possibly ask for lined up in their favor in that game. You know. The Jeff Driskel mess. Will Muschamp being the Gators’ coach. The overall anemic offense. And yet they still lost that game, which made me believe that Tennessee would never beat Florida again. That was the best shot they’d ever get to do it, I told myself, and they couldn’t do it.
And when I went to bed last night, I realized that I was wrong in my pre-sleep thoughts on this night a year ago. Tennessee didn’t have everything they could have possibly asked for go their way. They had most of it, but not all. A lot of things went their way, but some things didn’t go their way that could have. So I overwrote those thoughts from October of 2014 with these thoughts: this time, Tennessee really, truly, actually had everything they could have possibly asked for go their way, and still lost.
Like last year’s game, Tennessee’s defense played great for three quarters. Unlike last year’s game, the offense did, too, and the result was sincere belief from Vols and Gators fans alike (especially myself) that the Vols would win late in the game as opposed to hope/fear, depending on your alliance, that they would. Last night, Tennessee led by more (13 as opposed to 9) with less time remaining in the game (10 minutes left as opposed to 16), and had been playing better offensively throughout the game, meaning there was legitimate reason to believe that the Vols could score more if they needed to. And yes, the Gators did turn it on late, but then stalled and faced a 4th and 14. FOURTH AND FOURTEEN!!! What better down and distance scenario could Tennessee possibly ask for with just one play away from winning the game?
But oh, it gets better. The main X’s and O’s thing that has killed Tennessee throughout this insane streak has been the running game. Well, Tennessee absolutely dominated the running game last night, out rushing Florida 254-109. I mean, this is a stat that has been borderline hilarious in past years. In five of the previous ten losses to Florida, the Vols finished with numbers like 37, 29, 28, -9 and -11 in the running game. Many, including Tennessee coaches, believed that killing those demons was the key to beating Florida. Well, with their 254 yards on the ground (most of it by Dobbs), Tennessee killed those demons, and yet still lost.
Here’s what I realize now. Tennessee will never, ever, EVER beat Florida again unless something happens in the game that we have never seen before. It’s going to take something out of this world, like eight turnovers, 75 yards of total offense, four blocked punts, a dozen dropped deep passes, or some other unfathomable display of Florida botchery, for the Vols to ever beat the Gators again. I thought I’d seen it all last year, but no; yesterday, everything Tennessee could have possibly asked to go their way went their way, and Florida still won. And now, I truly believe that Florida will continue to beat Tennessee every year for the rest of my life until and unless they screw up to such an unforeseen extent that not even the most pessimistic Gator fan alive could have predicted it.
So don’t ca11 the back to back touchdown drives to give Florida the 28-27 win a comeback. Don’t ca11 Aaron Medley’s game winning field goal missing by the width between the two 1’s in 11 luck. Don’t ca11 Butch Jones any names for his decision to go for one instead of two.
Just ca11 it Florida-Tennessee.