Florida vs. Tennessee score, takeaways: Anthony Richardson rebounds, but Gators fall short

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 24, 2022
Florida vs. Tennessee score, takeaways: Anthony Richardson rebounds, but Gators fall short

Image Credit: GatorsFB / Twitter

In a back-and-forth game featuring superb quarterback play and lacking defense, the No. 20 Florida Gators fell to the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers 38-33 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. The loss was Florida’s first to Tennessee since 2016 and just its second in the series since 2004, but even in defeat, the Gators have positives to take away from the contest.

Opening the season 0-2 in SEC play for the first time since 1986 is not what those close to the program envisioned in Year 1 under head coach Billy Napier, and while some may question decisions made in Saturday’s game, Florida clearly showed improvement — at least offensively — in front of more than 100,000 fans in a difficult road environment.

Whether the Gators will build on their performance Saturday remains to be seen, but with the SEC East now out of their control and a difficult second half of the schedule ahead, Florida will continue focusing on self-improvement, a couple rivalry games and its quest for bowl eligibility.

“Nobody likes to lose. … There’s a lot of opportunities out there where our group could have folded their cards today, but they kept swinging. Can’t complement the effort, the physicality, the competitive spirit, the togetherness [enough],” said Napier, who pointed out that there were 12-15 plays where the Gators cost themselves the game.

“We need to execute a little bit better; we need to coach a little bit better. In particular myself, today, I can do better for our team, our players. Although we lost the game, we grew up a little bit today just relative to flipping the switch and competing. When you combine offense, defense and special teams today, we didn’t do enough to win.”

He added: “No moral victories. No moral victories. So, back to work.”

Let’s take a look at everything that went down in UF’s difficult loss to UT.

1. Anthony Richardson bounced back: The subject of immense scorn for his play over the last two weeks, Florida’s sophomore quarterback put together the best passing performance of his career (by far) with a career-high 453 yards and his first two passing touchdowns of the season. Though Richardson only completed 55% of his passes (24 of 44), the Gators played from behind most of the second half with the program attempting 17 more plays than the Vols. Through a mix of designed runs and broken plays, he added 62 yards rushing and two more scores for the second four-touchdown game in his career. In the end, Richardson finished with the second-most combined yards rushing and passing (515) to only the greatest QB in program history: Tim Tebow.

Richardson was poised and confident all game converting numerous big plays, including 5 of 6 tries on fourth down. He alluded three defenders to find junior tight end Keon Zipperer with a laser strike that Zipperer took 44 yards for the first touchdown of the game in the second quarter. He connected with wide receivers redshirt junior Justin Shorter (seven catches, 155 yards) and junior Ricky Pearsall (five catches, 108 yards, TD) time and again with both players hauling in passes of nearly 40 yards as part of separate touchdown drives and passes of nearly 30 yards each on the final touchdown drive with Pearsall finding the end zone.

“We prepared all week to take some shots,” Richardson said. “We’re building chemistry and confidence, and we tried to showcase that tonight. … It feels good to just go have fun and play football. … I just got to take advantage of every opportunity I get. … One of my coaches told me that ‘preparation is key and pressure is for the unprepared,’ and I feel like I was prepared for this game.”

Tennessee game planned to silence Florida’s rushing attack, succeeding by holding the trio of running backs redshirt sophomore Nay’Quan Wright (26 yards), sophomore Montrell Johnson Jr. (18 yards) and freshman Trevor Etienne (35 yards) to 3.2 yards per carry. That put even more pressure on Richardson to deliver, and he did nearly whenever he was called upon as the defense continuously gave up quick points.

That’s not to say Richardson was without his mistakes. He did throw another interception on the final play of the game, a Hail Mary, but he was also in the process of being sacked at the time. Rather, his lone true “disaster play” — as Napier calls it — came on a red zone fumble early in the fourth quarter where Richardson tried to do too much, didn’t protect the ball well enough and lacked protection from his offensive line. But the Gators defense allowed an 85-yard drive immediately off that miscue while the offense scored twice more before the end of the game.

The fumble certainly contributed to Florida’s failures, but it was hardly the reason for the loss. UF would not have been anywhere close in this game without Richardson, a significant change from him being one of the catalysts to the Gators’ loss to Kentucky and near-defeat by South Florida over the last two games. Richardson has played far better on the road than in Gainesville, Florida, in his young career making one wonder whether the pressures of leading his hometown team are affecting him mentally in The Swamp. Either way, this was a major step in the right direction for him and the program.

“Anthony Richardson is a phenomenal young man. He takes so much pride in his role on the team. He works, he’s humble, he cares and he competed today. He flipped the switch, and he competed in the game,” Napier said. “I know how hard the young man works. I watch him every day. He showed who he is today, and when you go through a couple rough outings and then go play on the road against a really good team, he responded today — physically, but more importantly, he responded as a teammate. He responded with character. He stayed focused on improvement, and that showed up today.”

2. How is this still happening? Though Johnson did carry for the fewest yards Saturday, he and Etienne again proved to be the most electric and powerful with the ball in their hands. Yet for the fourth straight game, Napier has split carries equally between those two and Wright. During a game in which every touch mattered, any of the eight plays Wright received could have been a difference-maker from another rusher. That’s not to say Wright cannot be utilized — in fact, he should probably have a role in the passing game — but Johnson and Etienne are clearly the best rushers on the team despite remaining underutilized.

3. Defensive implosion ruined offensive explosion: Neither Richardson’s fumble nor Napier’s decision making (no matter your opinion, more on that below) is to blame for this loss. Rather, it was the astoundingly poor effort from Florida’s defense — particularly the secondary — that was at fault. Seemingly every time the Gators scored, the Vols had immediate response thanks, in large part, to blown coverages.

Immediately after Florida scored to go up 7-3 early in the second quarter, Tennessee got a 70-yard passing play to a wide-open receiver; it eventually scored to lead 10-7. On the final drive of the first half, QB Hendon Hooker made two huge passing plays, including one on a blown coverage for 43 yards, completing a 12-play, 99-yard drive with seconds left on the clock to go ahead 17-14 into halftime. After allowing a 39-yard run on the first drive of the third quarter, a second blown coverage resulted in a 16-yard TD giving the Vols a 14-point swing spanning the break. The third coverage miscue came after Richardson’s fourth-quarter fumble as Tennessee gained 24 yards on a wheel route as part of an eventual scoring drive to lead 38-21. Senior safety Trey Dean III appeared to be at fault for the two receiving busts. It was the Vols’ fourth straight TD of the game.

The defense did have its moments with a couple notable quarterback hits, a forced fumble from redshirt senior linebacker Ventrell Miller (recovered by sophomore S Tre’Vez Johnson) to end Tennessee’s first drive in the red zone, and a fumble recovery by Miller (forced by senior LB Amari Burney) on a fourth-down sack in the second quarter, but the negatives massively outweighed the positives. It succeeded to contain the Vols’ running backs (3.6 yards per carry) but lost contain time and again on Hooker, who rushed 13 times for 112 yards and a TD. Hooker’s 349 yards passing were the most by a Vols signal caller against the Gators since Peyton Manning in 1997.

There has been a clear talent deficiency on defense across the last couple seasons, one which Napier is attempting to correct through recruiting, and it continued to rear its ugly head Saturday. Miller’s presence coming off a lower-body injury shored up the run defense that South Florida ate alive last week only for the pass defense to get exposed by a team that can throw the ball far better than USF. Hooker is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, so Florida was never going to stop him completely, but its inability to slow him down even a bit was the primary reason for the loss.

“Ventrell Miller is as good a human being as I’ve been around. He’s a really good football player, but Ventrell Miller, he’s a leader, he’s an example setter, he’s a great communicator. He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around when it comes to his ability to influence other people in a positive way,” Napier said.

4. Fair to question, not to criticize: A popular take coming out of the defeat is that some key coaching decisions by Napier cost the Gators the game. Before we get to those, let’s first note the offensive play calling was a vast improvement (save for the allotment of carries to running backs) from the last two weeks even before Richardson struggled in those games. Back to Napier’s two key decisions: It is fair to question both of them but criticizing must be done within context of situations and analytics.

First, Napier chose not to kick a 37-yard field goal on Florida’s opening drive of the game; instead, he went on fourth-and-2 from the Tennessee 20. Napier had already converted a fourth down on the drive and was coaching aggressively as a road underdog. One cannot criticize that decision in a low-risk spot while praising Napier for trying and succeeding on fourth down (5 of 6) in far more dangerous and potentially costly situations to immensely positive results throughout the rest of the game. (Far more impactful was the tipped 50-yard field goal miss later in the quarter as it spoke to continued problems on special teams. [More on that below.])

“It was required given the matchups and the dynamics in the game,” Napier said of the fourth-down attempts and his aggressive decision making. “For the most part, it paid off.”

Second, Napier attempted a 2-point conversion on the Gators’ penultimate touchdown scored with 4:49 left in the game. Florida trailed by 11 after finding the end zone, but rather than play for a potential tie in regulation knowing his defense was failing to stop Tennessee throughout the entire second half, Napier leaned on analytics as he did constantly at Louisiana. Trailing by that margin late in a game, the probability of victory increases from 1.3 to 2.2 in a neutral situation by going for 2 points in that spot. Remember: The goal is to win the game — not tie — particularly on the road. Given the remaining time and his plan to onside kick, it was the right decision from an analytical perspective.

While facts and statistics show neither decision was “wrong” by Napier, that does not mean they cannot be questioned. Should the Gators have taken points early in the game because they were on the road in a hostile environment? Sure. Could Napier have guessed Florida would turn Tennessee over on downs after the onside kick and score a second late touchdown? No, but the Gators had a second 2-point opportunity to create the tie they would have been attempting to achieve with the initial extra point. The success rate of going for 2 twice (62.5% chance to win) is greater than attempting that initial extra point (37.5%). Again, the math worked in their favor … unfortunately, the reality did not as they went 0-for-2 on those tries.

Could Napier have known junior LB Diwun Back would recover the second onside kick (a low-percentage play) giving the team a last-gasp chance with 16 seconds left? Of course not. Napier played the odds on every occasion, and whether you like it or not, it’s one of the reasons he was so successful at Louisiana. His “Scared Money Don’t Make Money” style is not supposed to be easy to digest; that’s the entire point of the slogan. Napier played to win the game, and if either 2-point try was converted, Florida would have been able to take a field goal on the final possession to either win or tie the game as opposed to only tie otherwise.

Napier added: “I believe in it. We left some points out there a little bit today, but it also paid dividends for us today. We knew we were going to have to score. History is the best indicator of the future. That group had scored 30 points eight or nine games in a row or something like that. We learned some things today. We believe in the research headed into the game relative to the matchup and all the different dynamics. You prepare your team to do it, and they go do it. They execute. And when they don’t get it, the defense responds. Overall, the research was supported.”

5. Quick hits: A few more fast takes from the game …

Special teams remains an issue. Given the importance of that phase of the game and Napier’s insistence on referring to it as “game changers,” it is changing the Gators for the worse. In addition to allowing a tipped field goal early, Florida continues to let up long returns on kickoffs and make poor decisions on such returns themselves. For example, sophomore WR Xzavier Henderson made a mind-numbing decision to field a ball late in the third quarter with pressure raining down on him; not only that, he ran horizontally, and the Gators committed a penalty on the play. They wound up starting on their own 4 rather than the 25.

The officiating was horrendous — as bad as one can remember across an entire game. The Vols were mostly the beneficiaries with multiple would-be holding and aggression penalties completely ignored. The crew twice struggled to recognize clear goal-line TDs; Florida got its overturned for a score when replay was clear as day, but Tennessee did not. Beneficial for UF, sure, but wrong nonetheless. The referees also infuriated Napier by picking up a delay of game flag because Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel called a late timeout on that non-TD. Officials did not even review the play during the timeout but rather after it was over, giving the Vols extra preparation time in a key situation. The crew was bad from top to bottom, and it unfortunately affected a good back-and-forth game.

“I lost my poise. I didn’t represent our team — I didn’t represent the University of Florida — the right way. I need to do better” Napier said apologetically of his outburst.

Napier is the first Florida coach to lose his first meeting with Tennessee since Steve Spurrier in 1990. Ironically, both were born in the Volunteer State. He’s also the first Gators coach to fall to the Vols and Wildcats in the same season since 1955.

6. Odds and ends: Florida fell to 31-21 all-time against Tennessee. It ended a five-game win streak, but the Gators have still won 16 of the last 18 meetings overall and seven of the last nine in Knoxville … this was the 25th time UF and UT met as top 25 programs; UF is now 16-9 in those games, 5-2 since 2005 … this was the first time the Vols scored more than 21 points in the series since 2016 … the Gators are now 7-12 against ranked opponents since 2018, 1-2 this season … UF is the only team in the nation to play three top-25 opponents through four weeks … UT has not scored on its opening drive against UF since 2009 (no TDs since 2001) … the Gators have scored in 427 consecutive games, an NCAA record

7. What it means: Progress takes time. This is what Year 1 looks like under a coach being tasked with rebuilding a roster and changing a culture simultaneously. Just ask Nick Saban (7-6 at Alabama in 2007 with losses to Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State, Florida State and three top-25 teams, including rivals LSU, Auburn and Georgia). Yes, Florida has seen more recent success now than Bama did then, but the disparity of talent and depth its roster from the top of the league is similar to that team at this juncture. Would the Gators like to be 3-1 instead of 2-2 given there’s an extremely tough second half of the season remaining? Of course. But the plethora of tweets calling Napier, co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney or whoever else failures is simply short-sighted.

“When we evaluate the tape … there’s gonna be things we can do better in all three areas of our team: players, coaches, in-game decision making, fundamentals, communication. That’s where we’re at — that’s exactly where we’re at as a football team,” Napier said. “We need more repetitions, and we need to stay the course. I’m confident in our process, and I’m confident in this group and their attitude towards the work. I know they’ll respond the right way.”

8. What’s next? Talk about a get-right game. Florida will host Eastern Washington next Saturday at noon ET in a game that will air live exclusively on ESPN+/SEC Network+. EWU is 1-2 this season with a 70-14 loss to Oregon in Week 2.

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