University of Florida

Humbled by loss to Tennessee, Gators vow to improve

Florida running back Jordan Cronkrite (32) runs for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in Knoxville, Tenn.
Florida running back Jordan Cronkrite (32) runs for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in Knoxville, Tenn. AP

Quincy Wilson talked a big game heading into Saturday’s game against Tennessee.

The Florida Gators junior cornerback and former Fort Lauderdale University School standout used a nonsensical soliloquy about ducks not being able to pull trucks before summing up his prediction in simpler terms.

“Florida Gators are going to win,” Wilson said. “Simple as that.”

Well, it wasn’t that simple.

The Gators’ 21-0 first-half lead vanished before their eyes as the Josh Dobbs-led Volunteers dismantled Florida with a 38-28 comeback victory that snapped UF’s 11-game win streak in the rivalry. It was the most dramatic collapse the Gators have experienced in a single game since giving up a 23-point lead in their 38-33 loss to Miami in 2003 under coach Ron Zook.

“In life being humble, there’s a lot of good things in that,” said UF coach Jim McElwain, whose team dropped four spots to No. 23 in the AP Top 25 poll following the loss. “As I said, back it up. They didn’t back it up, did they? There might be [a] lesson.”

The first lesson as Florida prepares for its second road game in a row against Vanderbilt is apparent: It needs to play all 60 minutes.

After amassing 300 yards of offense in the first half and posting seven explosive plays (five 20-plus yard passes, two 10-plus yard runs), Florida mustered just 102 yards on eight second-half drives with the bulk of the action coming on a 16-play, 86-yard drive late in the fourth quarter capped by a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Austin Appleby to freshman Freddie Swain.

The Gators’ other seven drives to close out the game resulted in five three-and-outs, an interception and a turnover on downs after four plays.

“They came out and they were bringing it,” said Appleby, who completed 59 percent of his passes for 296 passing yards, three touchdowns and an interception in his first UF start. “They really were.”

The Volunteers, who rose three spots to No. 11 with the win, posted 336 yards in the second half, averaging 9.1 yards per play.

Dobbs recorded 276 yards in the second half (235 passing, 41 rushing) and led Tennessee to five touchdown drives on the top ranked defense in the country. Heading into Saturday, the Gators’ defense had not allowed a passing touchdown. It gave up four within 15 minutes against Tennessee.

“We didn’t stop them,” linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “They had a bunch of big plays, a couple big passes, a couple long runs. That’s one of the things you have to stop in playing defense. That’s what hurt us most.”

Lesson No. 2: Learning from the mistakes on both sides of the ball.

Drops on offense, porous offensive line play in the second half, miscommunication in the secondary and missed tackles up front compounded on the Gators throughout the game. Now, they need to look back at it all, dissecting and reliving every mistake they made.

“It’s a lot easier to talk about the corrections when you’re winning,” Appleby said. “Some things kind of slide underneath and don’t get talked about. When you get beat now everything is in the light.”

The third lesson: Making sure this loss doesn’t multiply.

The Gators are still in the race to win the SEC East and return to the SEC Championship Game in December, but that will only remain true if they start winning again and if Tennessee falters in at least two of its remaining conference games.

“They beat us, so that’s the way it is. You can’t change it,” McElwain said. “So how do you not make it two? You go back to work and you take care of the now. There’s really no secret formula.”