University of Florida

Adjustments on defense pay dividends for Florida Gators against Tennessee

UF safety Keanu Neal secured an interception in the fourth quarter to seal Florida’s 10-9 win over host Tennessee.
UF safety Keanu Neal secured an interception in the fourth quarter to seal Florida’s 10-9 win over host Tennessee. Getty Images

During Florida’s idle date, coach Will Muschamp shook up Florida’s porous secondary and the early results were promising.

After yielding 818 passing yards the last two games, a revamped unit suffocated Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley and his talented quartet of receivers.

Aided by an improved pass rush, UF held the Volunteers to just 205 yards in the air, picked off two passes and forced a game-changing fumble.

“We were angry,” sophomore safety Keanu Neal said. “We knew everyone was doubting us and we had to step up. The secondary this, the secondary that. We are good. We have a lot of talented players in the secondary and today we just had to show people we’re here for business.”

True freshman Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor made their first career starts, while junior defensive back Brian Poole started at the nickel.

Tabor was especially impressive, recording two pass breakups and four tackles. The freshman cornerback breathed some much-needed life into the Gators, strip-sacking Worley in the closing seconds of the third quarter. Tabor recovered the fumble, Florida scored a touchdown on its ensuing drive and never looked back.

“It wasn’t always pretty, but our guys responded to the adversity,” Muschamp said. “We did the things we had to do to win the game.”

Florida dominated the trenches, holding Tennessee to just 3.3 yards per carry and sacking Worley six times — matching their season output.

Sophomore end Bryan Cox Jr. had a breakout performance against UT’s green offensive line with three sacks.

“My grandfather [Otis Williams] passed away last week, and I just dedicated this game to him,” Cox said. “He inspired me. I was playing for him and my family.”

Veteran safeties Jabari Gorman and Marcus Maye were benched pregame, but both defensive backs played plenty against the Vols. Maye was often targeted by Worley, but the redshirt sophomore contributed to Neal’s game-winning interception.

“In the Kentucky game we lost some confidence,” Muschamp said. “The secondary is a very fragile position. To go back to old terms, it’s the last line of defense. … We simplified some things. Now, we had two weeks to prepare. So we’re not the ’85 Bears so lets not jump to any conclusions here. We have a long way to go.”

Humphries Returns

Junior left tackle D.J. Humphries (high ankle sprain) returned to the starting lineup for the first time since the season opener.

Humphries struggled in his return, surrendering several pressures and two sacks.

Senior tackle Chaz Green slid back to his normal position on the right, while redshirt freshman Roderick Johnson went back to the bench.

Meanwhile, senior linebacker Michael Taylor, questionable all week with knee swelling, did not play despite participating in pregame warmups.

Poole, Cox, wide receiver Valdez Showers, linebacker Antonio Morrison and tailback Matt Joneswere all sidelined at various points in the game, but each player, except for Showers, later returned to action.

This & That

The announced attendance was 102,455. … Florida won the coin toss for the first time all season and deferred to the second half. … The Gators, leading the conference in flags, were penalized just five times for 45 yards. Andre Debose had a 45-yard punt return touchdown wiped out by a block in the back. … UF freshman defensive lineman Gerald Willis III dressed for the first time in two games and played on Florida’s opening defensive series. … UT safety LaDarrel McNeil was ejected for targeting quarterback Jeff Driskel during a run play, but the call was overturned upon replay review. … The Vols started five true freshman on offense for the first time since 2010.

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