Streak over, Vols are 4-0 with goals to go
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s finally over.
Eleven years of misery of losing to Florida is now in the rear view mirror for Tennessee.
But it didn’t come easy, and Butch Jones knows it.
“That first half of football wasn’t us,” Jones said after the Volunteers fell behind 21-0, but rallied for a 38-28 victory Saturday.
“That was not us and every man knew it. You come out the second half and I knew this football team was not going to be denied. I knew it at the hotel. I knew it today. There was just a sense of calmness and confidence.”
Jones’ patience of his team paid off.
Sure there were dropped passes, bad coverages, bad blocking – you name it. The first half was ugly, and the Vols went to the half down 21-3.
But credit Jones, and credit his gut for how the first the half was going against Florida. Last season, Jones was ridiculed for not going for it on 4th-and-goal against Oklahoma and electing to kick a field goal from the 1-yard line.
Instead, in the first quarter, Jones found his offense in the same situation against Florida – and the Vols had no points to show for it again after he failed to convert 4th-and-goal.
Not getting any points there, and having many drops on crucial drives in the first half made the second-half performance and victory over Florida even more memorable.
“We executed,” Jones said of the second half. “Make no mistake about it. We’re in the red-zone three times, and we come away with three points, and we’re talking about low-red. We’re talking about on the goal line.
“It’s 4th-and-one, we have to score. It’s first and goal on the 1. We have to get the ball in for seven points. We didn’t catch the ball very well in the first half. The great thing about it was the maturity of our football team came through when we had guys who dropped the football come up to me and say, ‘Coach, I want the ball. Throw the ball to me. Give me the ball.’ To me, that’s something we haven’t had in the past.”
Down 21-3 at halftime, Tennessee had gut-check time, and a time to question if they should go away from what was not working offensively — or stubbornly stick with it.
The Vols did not waiver on their identity.
“We have tremendous faith and confidence in them,” Jones said of his team. “We see it every single day. They’ve done a great job of catching the football. We haven’t had a lot of drops this season. We’ve seen it. For whatever reason it happened, but in the second half it didn’t. That was the difference in the game. We were able to throw the football against a really good defense, and we were able to protect.”
Jones stayed the course, and it paid off.
Offensively and defensively for Tennessee, Jim McElwain knew that the game had turned following halftime.
“My hat is off to them and how they came out at halftime and really took it to us with explosive plays,” McElwain said.
“They controlled the game. We never flipped the field offensively in the third quarter. We didn’t have many plays or yards when we came up with the interception. We were playing with a long field the whole day. That’s not good football, but to their credit, they came in and took it to us. It’s disappointing. We have a bunch of guys hurting in the locker room. These are life lessons. Not every day does everything go like you want it. The key is what you learn from it and how you respond.”
Not only was the Vols’ offense on par in the second half, avoiding mistakes, but Bob Shoop and the defense answered the call in a second-half domination.
“I think it’s just following the process of making plays,” Jones said of the second half defensively. “Like I said, we did some things, that wasn’t us the first half, some uncharacteristic things as a football team. We challenged them a little bit at halftime, but they knew and they came out.
“I thought Derek Barnett took the game over. I thought Derek Barnett was outstanding in his leadership and his energy that he brought to our sideline and to the defense. I thought our entire football team fed off of him. Then obviously, T.K.’s (Todd Kelly) big interception and to be able to cash that in for seven, that was big down the stretch.”
Now the Vols have continue their undefeated start to the 2016 season and go to Georgia. Jones knows quite well that he has something special going with a 4-0 start and a team that believes that they can now win.
“We have something special here. Must win, all that – that is not the case,” he said. “We are building something special here with character and competitiveness. It’s just one game. We’ve got to go on the road next week.
“The resolve of these kids, with all the expectations on this football game and you go down at half time and to have that second half performance. If you don’t have character in your football program, that does not happen.”