FOOTBALL

Tennessee football vs. Florida report card: Highest grade goes to offense

Mike Wilson
Knoxville News Sentinel

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tennessee football committed at least 10 penalties for the second time this season Saturday at Florida.

The Vols (2-2, 0-1 SEC) lost 38-14 to the No. 11 Gators (3-1, 1-1).

Here's how we graded UT's SEC opener:

Offense

Tennessee's offense played better than its 14 points suggest, but penalties and failed execution hamstrung the effort.

Hendon Hooker started for the second straight game and showed he should be Tennessee’s starting quarterback. He was outstanding in the first half, hitting a 75-yard touchdown to JaVonta Payton after UT struggled to connect downfield through three games.

The Virginia Tech graduate transfer badly missed only one throw, a cross-field pass to tight end Jacob Warren in the first half while under pressure. He left the game in the fourth quarter after a hard hit following a failed flea flicker.

JOHN ADAMS:One good Tennessee Vols half against Florida not enough in The Swamp 

TENNESSEE VS FLORIDA:Hendon Hooker's breakout game spoiled by another Tennessee football loss to Florida

BLAKE TOPPMEYER:Tennessee football exits Swamp with hope. Florida has something more valuable

UT’s offense struggled to execute at key moments. Jimmy Calloway had two key drops, including a brutal fourth-down drop on UT’s first drive of the second half. The sophomore had a lot of space in front of him but failed to catch the ball.

Tiyon Evans was effective. So was Jabari Small, at times, as UT's running back duo played in the same game for the first time since UT's season-opening 38-6 win against Bowling Green.

Grade: B-minus

Defense

Tennessee defensive back Trevon Flowers (1) is blocked by a Florida defender during a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Tennessee’s defense did enough in the first half to keep the Vols toe-to-toe with Florida. It was ineffective in the second half. Florida scored touchdowns on three of four second-half drives.

The Vols allowed more than 10 yards per play in the third quarter. Emory Jones had his way with Tennessee through the air and on the ground; the Gators quarterback had a career-high 144 rushing yards. He also passed for 209.

Tennessee did not tackle well for the final 30 minutes, as Florida easily drove downfield repeatedly. 

Alontae Taylor made a big-time play forcing a fumble late in the first half after Florida converted a fourth down. The senior cornerback ripped the ball away from Florida wide receiver Jacob Copeland, ending a drive deep in UT territory and giving UT's offense a chance to score before halftime.

It was Tennessee's first forced fumble and fumble recovery this season.

Grade: C-

Special teams

Tennessee’s special teams struggled. Jimmy Holiday was ejected for targeting when he blasted Florida punt returner Xzavier Henderson. He also was flagged for kick-catch interference, and linebacker William Mohan was flagged behind the play for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Chase McGrath missed a 47-yard field goal before halftime that would have tied the game 17-17.

Grade: D

Coaching

Josh Heupel and his offensive staff were dialed in. There were numerous well-designed and beautifully thought-out plays. The execution was lacking too often.

But Tennessee also had its issues. Penalties abounded. The Vols were beaten on a double-pass for a touchdown for the second time this season. UT didn’t have a punt returner back in the first quarter due to having two players wearing No. 1 on the field. 

Heupel also had a pair of curious timeout decisions — at the end of the first half and prior to a fourth-down attempt in the third quarter.

Grade: C-plus

Game ball

Tiyon Evans

Evans rushed for 45 yards on 10 carries and caught two passes for 54 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.