You’re going to read a lot of different things about a lot of different years from Vol Nation tonight. At halftime, I was thinking about 2011.
Budding optimism after what only seemed like a long time in the wilderness, enhanced oddly enough by beating Butch Jones and Cincinnati, quickly vanished with the losses of Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray to injury. Suddenly the only thing to do was hit the reset button, only you can’t find the reset button after too much hope has set in, its glass can’t be broken in case of emergency.
At halftime today, all the things we thought about Tennessee in 2016 just didn’t seem like things we could think without Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Darrin Kirkland Jr., and Cameron Sutton. In their place were a former walk-on, a slew of options including the first meaningful appearance of Dillon Bates, and one of the most difficult first half performances we’ve seen from Tennessee corners. And, for the foreseeable future, this was Tennessee’s defense. Which meant we were going back to conversations about unbuilt depth hiding behind the starting 22, and 9-3 being the ceiling for this team. Only you can’t go back. Florida up 21-3 was an emergency, but the only thing threatening to break was, you know, all of us.
And then the defense I and many of us were writing off, the group that seemed like it would never cover a deep ball again, forced five straight three-and-outs and an interception.
They did it. Colton Jumper, Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley, Dillon Bates and Cortez McDowell and Gavin Bryant and Kenny Bynum. The next men up, with a huge assist from Tennessee’s defensive line and a pair of safeties who were once the biggest question on this team and are now one of its best answers. The defense I thought would never be good enough was more consistently good than I’ve seen a Tennessee defense be in a long, long time.
Their 3rd-and-1 stop after Dobbs’ second interception when the score was still 21-3 was mammoth as it turns out, maintaining an advantage in field position the Vols would never relinquish. Then they blew up a screen. Then Derek Barnett turned into Derek Barnett. And then everybody just started blowing up everybody, one of the most vivid visuals to help you believe Tennessee was back: passes to receivers in space that went for huge gains in years like 2011 got obliterated almost immediately after the catch in 2016. Against Florida. By the next men up.
It’s one of the most surprising things I’ve ever seen from a Tennessee team, and I’m not even sure it’s the most surprising thing that happened today.
Explosiveness was at the top of our off-season wish list: we won in spite of its absence last year and almost beat the Gators the same way. Tennessee moved the ball in the first half but was plagued by drops. Dobbs’ interception to open the third quarter could have been a back-breaker.
And then the defense made that stop. And then Tennessee unleashed this:
- Josh Dobbs to Jalen Hurd for a 23-yard touchdown
- Josh Dobbs to Josh Malone for 30 yards
- Josh Dobbs to Ethan Wolf for a 20-yard touchdown
- Josh Dobbs to Jauan Jennings for a 67-yard touchdown
- Josh Dobbs to Josh Malone for a 42-yard touchdown
- Josh Dobbs runs for 22 yards
- Jalen Hurd runs for 19 yards
- Josh Dobbs runs five yards for a touchdown
All of that happened in a span of 26 plays. The two biggest plays happened on third down, Dobbs-to-Malone on 3rd-and-10.
The #BDN gave up 48 plays of 20+ yards in 14 games last season, 3.42 per contest. Today they gave up six and five touchdowns in those 26 plays.
We’ve spent all week talking about the kind of performance it takes for a Tennessee team to beat Florida, a match-up where the talent advantage is a push on our best days. The Vols needed to be ugly, to be the team who made the fewest mistakes, to protect Dobbs by not asking him to throw downfield. And in the first half they were ugly by being the team that made the most mistakes.
And then in the second half, on both sides of the ball, Tennessee essentially said, “Nah, we’ll just dominate.”
Every Vol victory over Florida is precious and memorable, no matter how grind-it-out the on-field product was. But this? This was something else entirely. Not since the Vols took a 7-3 advantage at halftime and turned it into a 45-3 win in 1990 has Tennessee simply blown by Florida. And tonight the Vols did it not up 7-3, but down 21-3 with plenty of opportunity to fold.
On this point, Butch Jones and Josh Dobbs are due tremendous praise.
Butch isn’t necessarily forthcoming in his media opportunities. But I thought something he said in the postgame tonight when asked about Dobbs’ personality resonated:
We were a desperate bunch even before today, and social media has put everyone’s crazy on full display. It can make it feel like all of us are living and dying on every play, even more than we’ve always been.
And into that cauldron step Jones and Dobbs, who showed calm in the storm and then unleashed a hurricane absolutely no one in the building saw coming.
Dobbs, whose passing has been criticized by just about anyone wearing orange, saw his receivers let him down more than ever before in the first half. No matter: in the second, Dobbs and his receivers made more memories than any group have in a decade. He put a 10.0 yards per attempt on #DBU. (By the way, Virginia Tech would like a word about that hashtag, and the Hokies are rolling right now. I think we’re done worrying about what App State does.) In the second half Dobbs treated Florida’s defense the way he treats Kentucky’s, while also getting drilled just after letting it fly repeatedly because it wasn’t Kentucky, it was Florida.
This is all new. All of it. For some of us parts of it can feel old, beating Florida and immediately trying to figure out how much of the table you can actually run. But the way it happened?
We’ll be quick to label it the best comeback since x or the biggest win since y. But the comparisons we’ll be making are so far in the past, that tells much of the story. For Tennessee, this win is less about being back and more about being here, now. For Butch Jones, whose biggest wins in Knoxville had come after the Vols had already lost 3-5 games those years? This is the one that brings unconditional love, the one where hope pays off. There will be other opportunities, including an important one in Athens in one week. We’ll get to that. For now, man I’m happy for Butch. Those fist pumps walking to the handshake? Yes sir. Amen.
I’ve been going to games since I was four years old in 1986 and haven’t missed a big one in Neyland since 1989. I’ve seen some crazy things in that place. But I’ve never seen something like today. The comparisons and all that? They’re helpful, but this one is going to stand on its own for a long, long time. And as the first one of this new era, on a day when our players and coaches deserved victory against the Florida Gators, it deserves nothing less.