AJ, you're a rock in the middle, apparently on both sides of the ball. Sadly, when the play is on the sidelines, being a rock in the middle doesn't matter. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE
Florida could not line up and run between the tackles. They tried, and they tried, and they couldn't do it. Daniel McCullers was dominant inside, and AJ Johnson ate up any running attempts up the middle. Tennessee, on the other hand, could line up and run inside when they needed a couple yards. Again, AJ Johnson was a key figure, coming in for a pair of key conversions (including a touchdown) out of the Wildcat. If I'd told you those two things before the game, you'd assume Tennessee walked away victorious. Even more so when I said that Tennessee was riding high with a touchdown lead midway through the third quarter. With the advantage in the passing game, any additional advantage in getting the tough yards should steer us toward a Tennessee blowout. But instead, Tennessee fell to two familiar weaknesses and the untimely failure of a strength.
Florida scored two touchdowns in the first 44 minutes of the game. Both were scored by Trey Burton taking a direct snap and simply running around the Tennessee defense. Those were his only two carries in the first three quarters. For 44 minutes, everybody in the stadium knew that Florida only had one play that could move the ball on the Tennessee defense, and everybody in the stadium knew exactly when they were trying it. And the Tennessee defense couldn't stop it.
Weakness on the edges was a known problem. No one had exploited it this year, but we're not far removed from Chris Rainey having a field day against a Tennessee defense that just lacked the lateral quickness to counter him. Since then, Tennessee has reinforced their strength in the middle and not done anything to solve the weakness outside. If you run right at the Vols, you may be in for a long night (possible exception: you are Alabama). If you run around the ends, you're going to find success. And even if Tennessee knows you're going to run around the ends, you'll still find success, because Tennessee either doesn't have the athletes or the scheme to stop it. And if they do sell out to the outside, well then you can run between the tackles, as Florida did in the last 15-20 minutes.
But even without the ability to shore up a known weakness, the Vols may still have pulled off a win without the untimely sputtering of their strongest weapon: the passing game. Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson all have the chance to be first round NFL draft picks. But Bray seemed a little bit off all day, Hunter dropped three passes on third downs, and Patterson let the game-tying touchdown go off his hands in the fourth quarter. If the receivers make the plays that they always make, Tennessee matches Florida score for score, and whoever strikes last wins. The Vols don't have strengths everywhere, and they just can't overcome uncharacteristic struggles from their best players.
Frustrating as those may be, the most frustrating thing for me, sitting in the upper deck in my new-bought t-shirt with the General's Maxims printed on the back, was another familiar weakness: the inability to respond to adversity. Tennessee has certainly been able to respond to small doses of adversity this season. A strong drive to start the second half erased memories of a goal line fumble in the Georgia Dome, a touchdown drive answered a familiar early Florida score yesterday, and a goal line stand kept Tennessee ahead at the half. But when it begins to look bleak, Tennessee folds up and goes home. It happened with just a 4-point deficit at Ole Miss in 2009, it happened when Denarius Moore dropped a sure touchdown against Virginia Tech later that year, it happened numerous times in 2010 and 2011, and it happened last night. Tennessee got destroyed on the Chip Kelly Statistic (and it's worse if you count Florida's turnover on downs--and Tennessee's resulting three and out), and when the air went out of the Vols after two big Florida runs late in the third quarter, the game was still tied! All but the worst of Tennessee's opponents can count on winning the all-important third maxim, and have been able to for some time--probably since the 2009 Alabama game. That must change. Now. If at first the game--or the breaks--go against you, don't let up. . . put on more steam!