Florida vs. Tennessee score, takeaways: Emory Jones shines as Gators dominate in second half

By Adam Silverstein
September 26, 2021
Florida vs. Tennessee score, takeaways: Emory Jones shines as Gators dominate in second half

Image Credit: @GatorsFB on Twitter

For the second straight week, the No. 11 Florida Gators got off to a sloppy start only to solidify in the second half. This time, it resulted in a victory as Florida trounced the Tennessee Volunteers 38-14 on Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. The tale of two halves was striking with the Gators defense giving up explosive plays over the first 20 minutes before completely shutting down the Vols throughout the remainder of the game.

Consistent throughout the showdown in The Swamp was Florida redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones, who put together the best game of his career — by far — completing 21 of 27 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns while also taking 15 carriers for 144 yards. Jones became the first Gators QB to achieve the 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing mark in the same game since Tim Tebow in 2009 and the first to accomplish the feat in an SEC contest since Tebow in 2007.

Florida moved to 3-1 on the season and 1-1 in SEC play, rebounding nicely from a tough, close loss to No. 1 Alabama last week. Things do not get easier for the Gators going forward, through they should take at least some time to celebrate a win over an SEC East rival that was much improved from last season despite the lopsided score.

“Couple mistakes here and there. We challenged the guys at halftime. It wasn’t a big challenge. It was a challenge about, ‘If we want to be a great team, we got to play great every snap. We got to execute, we have to have attention to detail, do every small thing the right way.’ And I thought, in the second half, for the most part, we did that. We came out and played really well there in the second half.

As Florida feels itself just a little following a thorough domination of Tennessee, let’s take a look at what went down — and what must be taken away — from another big night in The Swamp.

1. Put some respect on his name: Enough with the Emory Jones hate. Throw out the stat line for a moment and concentrate on the play. Jones was cool, calm and collected Saturday night. Even more so than he was against Bama. He was turnover-free. He made big throws and picked up significant yardage on the ground. And he appears to have the respect and appreciation of those who matter the most: his teammates and Mullen.

Jones is not a perfect quarterback. He’s not Tebow or Steve Spurrier or Danny Wuerffel or Kyle Trask. But he is a first-year starter who never played more than a few snaps or mop-up duty in a game before this season, and he’s currently working through his growing pains. You know who else is working through growing pains? This entire Florida team, which suffered significant losses on both sides of the ball coming out of the stellar 2020 season.

Now, back to the stat line. Jones was fantastic on Saturday, proving responsible for 70% of the Gators offense. The biggest miscue on that side of the ball came after Jones successfully converted a fourth-and-2 with a pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Jacob Copeland, who subsequently did not immediately go down and tried to fight for extra yardage, giving the Vols the opportunity to jar the ball loose.

Throughout the first half, my @OnlyGators Twitter account was bombarded with demands for redshirt freshman QB Anthony Richardson, who provided massive sparks for the offense over the first two games. Florida’s offense wasn’t the problem at any point Saturday. Copeland’s fumble was surely a bad miscue, but a combination of missed tackles and blown coverages on defense is what gave Tennessee life early. Richardson playing ain’t helping that.

Is the Gators offense better when Richardson can step in for Jones for a couple plays or a couple series? Absolutely. Is Richardson the quarterback of the future at Florida? It sure as hell seems like it. Was Richardson still recovering from his strained hamstring Saturday? That’s what Mullen said. (Richardson will be 100% at practice on Monday with the expectation that he plays at Kentucky next week.)

Let’s make one thing clear. Mullen is not actively holding Richardson off the field out of spite for you, Gator Nation. He knows Richardson is talented. He knows you want him to play. He wants him to play. Mullen wants to make sure Richardson is available the rest of the season, not for a Week 4 game against a team in Tennessee that he knows Florida can beat by 24 points if the defense stops screwing up.

Jones is the Gators’ quarterback this season. It surely got off to a rough start, but if you haven’t seen marked improvement in his play over the last two weeks — when it’s really mattered in SEC play — then you’re watching a different game. Mullen is consistently giving him a longer leash and deeper throws when Jones proves that he’s comfortable and ready for them, such as he was in the second half Saturday.

“You’re seeing him really settling down. I think he did a great job making his reads, managing the offense, getting us into the right checks, into the right plays,” Mullen said. “… I don’t know if we called many direct quarterback runs in the game tonight, so I think he had some runs and scrambles and reads, some explosives, that show how he’s managing things.”

He added: “When the playbook opens up, and we have different plans each week, you’re starting to see his confidence play in. That gives us more confidence to throw things in from the playbook on how we want to attack teams.”

When Richardson is cleared and able to play, he will complement Jones nicely. And if Jones loses his confidence, turns the ball over or otherwise falls flat on his face, Mullen will make a change. But for now, and likely for the rest of the season, Jones is the QB1 at Florida. Get used to it.

2. Royal (blue) Rumble: There’s likely never been such a stark change in successful offense from one season to the next at Florida than there has been from the high-octane passing attack under Trask in 2020 to the run-heavy bludgeoning the Gators are putting opponents through in 2021. Florida rumbled for 283 yards on the ground Saturday as part of its 505 yards of total offense. That marked the 14th straight game that UF has eclipsed 400 total yards, the longest such streak since at least 1981. It is second nationally in rushing yards, and on Saturday, for the first time this season, had a near 50-50 split offensively with 222 yards passing.

Not getting enough credit for the incredible output is the offensive line, which has been the MVP of this team through the first third of the season. Unfortunately for the Gators, the line seemed to suffer some key injuries on Saturday, though we will have to wait and see whether that effects Florida’s depth chart next week.

In addition to Jones’ tremendous performance on the ground, senior running back Dameon Pierce took eight carries for 62 yards, redshirt senior Malik Davis carried 10 balls for 45 yards and a touchdown — adding 14 yards and another score through the air — while redshirt senior Nay’Quan Wright had five touches for 45 total yards and a score.

“We roll the guys. So, 25 carries, 150 yards and two touchdowns. If we didn’t rotate them as much, that’d be a pretty good day for the running back,” Mullen remarked.

Consider the immense success all three backs have seen on the ground and then remember the Gators have two five-star rushers waiting in the wings, likely somewhat impatiently, hoping to get carries behind that trio. Florida’s running game appears to be unstoppable, though it may meet its match sometime around Halloween.

3. Defense is great again … for 40 minutes: One week after holding Alabama to 10 points over the final three quarters and just 91 yards rushing for the game, Florida’s defense was at it again … in the second half. The Gators held the Vols scoreless over the final 41:31 on Saturday, allowing the visitors just 162 total yards in 14:07 of ball possession in the second half. That’s the exact level of play that’s been expected of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s unit since he arrived in Gainesville. The problem? Those pesky first 20 minutes.

One week after spotting Alabama 21 points in the first quarter, Florida allowed Tennessee to score on passes of 47 yards and 75 yards from Vols QB Hendon Hooker. The former was due to a literal ton of missed tackles, while the latter was a mind-numbing blown coverage that left sophomore safety Mordecai McDaniel scratching his head after he was caught waiting for Hooker to run the ball. UT led 14-10 after 20 minutes thanks to two explosive plays of 40+ yards, which were just as many as the Gators had allowed in 12 quarters prior to Saturday’s game.

The missed tackles became an epidemic for Florida throughout the game as Tennessee again and again took should-be short gains into would-be long runs. It averaged 4.0 yards per rush in large part because of sacks on Hooker and stronger play late.

UF had a built-in excuse: Junior star cornerback Kaiir Elam, arguably the best player on the team, was ruled out with a knee injury. That put Grantham in a tough spot starting his No. 3 and No. 4 cornerbacks given that sophomore Jaydon Hill already suffered a season-ending knee injury in the offseason. Florida is also without its starting middle linebacker in redshirt senior Ventrell Miller, and graduate transfer CB Elijah Blades entered the game hobbled with a hamstring injury.

Elam will be listed as probable next week, according to Mullen, who noted that UF has been down big numbers in the secondary and playing a bunch of guys who were not even on the roster a year ago.

Defenses are going to make mistakes, but when they pile upon one another early in the game — particularly in the first quarter — it puts the the offense in a hole and forces it to try and create points to atone for those miscues. The defensive front seven got after Hooker and the Vols on Saturday, but at some point, consistency is going to be necessary because we already saw the Gators once unable to overcome an early hole against the Crimson Tide. Facing a similar situation in a couple weeks will be just as disastrous to the team’s long-term goals.

“I thought [the defense] played excellent. I thought Todd did a great job with getting the guys ready to play,” Mullen said. “… You look in the first half, we had a couple missed tackles, which allowed them to keep a drive alive, and then that one touchdown was a missed tackle. And then we had a blown coverage, and you’re in man coverage. Cover your man. It’s not like we’re being real complex with it all. Just had a missed assignment there.

“You saw what Todd and his guys are able to do, the adjustments they made at halftime, for us to come in and pitch a shutout in the second half. After they hit the 75-yard blown coverage bomb, they didn’t score again. … I challenged the defense at halftime to their execution and play to our standard. … We did that all the way to the final play of the game.”

4. The big — and bad — plays: Outside of Copeland’s fumble, the wide receivers were fantastic. Copeland himself caught three tough balls for 32 yards, while sophomore Xzavier Henderson impressed with three difficult grabs of his own for 36 yards. Redshirt junior Justin Shorter led the team with 54 yards (also on three receptions), while redshirt seniors Rick Wells and tight end Kemore Gamble combined for 68 yards with a touchdown each.

Gamble’s score came on a terrific double pass in the red zone from redshirt sophomore Trent Whittemore to open the third quarter. It completed a six-play, 78-yard drive out of halftime, spotting Florida a 24-14 lead that it built on for the remainder of the game. Jones took off for a thrilling 49-yard run in the fourth quarter after being deep in Gators territory, and redshirt senior kicker Jace Christmann booted his first field goal since 2019 at Mississippi State, a 47-yard kick that put UF ahead 10-7 in the first quarter.

“Those guys both do a great job. Practice has been close. We went with Jace this week. He did a great job, hit a long field goal, kind of had the hot hand, so it was easy to stick with him,” said Mullen, explaining why Christmann started over fellow redshirt senior Chris Howard.

That’s not to say Florida was perfect on Saturday. Far from it. Christmann’s field goal was attempted because the Gators committed back-to-back penalties, ending a good drive with a failed conversion of third-and-15 on the second series of the game. Copeland’s aforementioned fumble was particularly untimely given it occurred just before halftime; Florida would’ve had an opportunity to start and finish the quick change with scores, putting it out in front faster. (Luckily for UF, the ensuing drive ended in a missed field goal for UT.)

The Gators also failed to take advantage of Jones’ aforementioned 49-yard run, punting from the Vols’ 39-yard line and netting just 19 yards on the boot. Mullen screwed up here as well by not draining the clock and taking the delay of game penalty to give redshirt freshman punter Jeremy Crawshaw more room.

“I thought last week we had a slow start and an adjustment to the game. This week, I don’t think it was that. Give them credit. They came and executed some plays, broke some tackles. … I don’t know if it was as much a slow start as a little back-and-forth at the beginning. Mistakes can come at any point during a game. We just got to have the mindset that we’re playing at a high level every snap.”

5. Odds and ends: Florida improved to 31-20 all-time against Tennessee with wins in 16 of the last 17 meetings and five straight wins … the Gators are now 16-5 against the Vols in The Swamp with nine straight home wins since 2005 … UF has outscored UT by 23.25 points per game under Mullen … Florida is now 23-3 when scoring first, 26-2 when leading at halftime, 28-2 when leading after the third quarter, 22-0 when allowing 20 points or fewer and 24-1 when outrushing its opponent under Mullen … the Gators are now 24-3 against unranked teams under Mullen … Florida has scored 24+ points in 30 of its last 33 games … the Gators have posted 400+ yards of total offense in 14 straight games, the longest such streak since at least 1981 … Florida has scored in 414 consecutive games, an NCAA record

6. What’s next? Florida will play its first SEC road game of the season next week at Kentucky in a game that will kickoff at either 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. ET on an ESPN network. The Gators have won 33 of their last 34 games against the Wildcats but were defeated 27-16 in 2018, Mullen’s first season. Kentucky is a talented team that is 4-0 this season, and Kroger Field is always a tough venue at night.

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