The Florida Gators extended their dominance of rival Tennessee, earning their 16th win during their past 17 meetings with the Vols.
Three things learned during the No. 11 Gators’ 38-14 win on Saturday night.
1. Quarterback Emory Jones grew up the past two weeks
Jones had to shoulder more of the load while backup Anthony Richardson sat out against Alabama and Tennessee with a tender right hamstring.
Jones responded with a gutsy effort to nearly lead a comeback win against the nation’s top-ranked team followed by a rout of a rebuilding rival.
“I’m feeling more comfortable week-to-week,” Jones said.
At one point against Tennessee, Jones completed 12 straight throws and finished 21 of 27 passing for 209 yards, two touchdowns and his first game in 2021 without an interception. The redshirt junior made all the right moves in the running game to end with 144 yards on 15 carries.
Despite being one of the nation’s top dual-threat QBs in high school, Jones said he never rushed for so many yards in a game.
“I probably ran for 100 in high school a couple times,” he said. “I was just going out there running. I didn’t really realize how far I’d run.”
Senior tailback Dameon Pierce said the sky’s the limit for his fellow Georgian and 2018 UF classmate.
“They’re just scratching the surface with Emory,” Pierce said. “That’s a guy with a lot of potential and a lot of grit. He’s just getting comfortable out there. He’s still getting his feet wet.
“Expect more of that from Emory.”
Few of Jones’ runs against Tennessee were designed, but his ability to improvise and make plays with this feet has never been questioned. His 375 yards lead the SEC’s top rushing attack.
Jones’ ability to read defenses and make quick decisions will be critical to UF’s passing game. Late throws, locking onto receivers and a lack of anticipation caused Jones to miss opportunities and throw five interceptions during the first three games.
Jones made strides as a thrower against Tennessee.
“He did a great job making his reads, managing the offense, getting us in the right checks, into the right plays,” coach Dan Mullen said. “Decision-making was pretty good in the pass game, and then, obviously, scrambling.”
Jones aims to build on this while again sharing the QB duties with Richardson.
2. Banged-up defense is vulnerable
Already without inside linebacker Ventrell Miller (torn biceps tendons) and cornerback Jaydon Hill (torn ACL), UF was without All-SEC cornerback Kaiir Elam (knee). The lack of veteran leadership and experience showed as Tennessee staked a surprising 14-10 lead.
Former UCF coach Josh Heupel’s up-tempo attack had the Gators’ defense on its heels and continuing some bad habits.
During a 47-yard touchdown off a screen pass, Vols tailback Tiyon Evans capitalized on a few missed tackles, an epidemic a week earlier as Alabama built a 21-3 first-quarter lead en route to a 31-29 win. UT QB Hendon Hooker completed a 75-yard touchdown pass when JaVonta Payton slipped behind UF sophomore backup safety Mordecai McDaniel, who was lost in coverage similar to senior safety Trey Dean when Alabama completed a touchdown to a wide-open receiver.
Mullen said Elam is expected back for next week’s visit to Kentucky. Even so, UF will have to count on some young, inexperienced players to pitch in and improve.
3. Mullen’s adjustments work again
Leading just 17-14 at home against a 19-point underdog, Mullen challenged the Gators to eliminate mistakes while he and his staff made necessary tweaks.
The Gators responded with a 78-yard drive on six plays, capped by some trickery for a touchdown. A double-pass from Jones to receiver Trent Whittemore, a former high school quarterback, ended with a 13-yard catch by tight end Kemore Gamble.
Known as “Kodak,” named for rapper and passionate Gators fan Kodak Black, the play was the difference during the Gators’ 13-6 win in 2018 at Mississippi State. Saturday, it set the tone for a dominant second-half performance.
UF outgained UT 292-162 and outscored it 21-0 during the final 30 minutes.
This second-half dominance came a week after the Gators outscored Alabama 26-10 in the wake of trailing 21-3 and were in jeopardy of being run off their home field.
Pierce said Tennessee’s defense flummoxed UF early on. At halftime, Mullen simplified the game plan and his players responded.
“We were moving kind of slow because we were thinking a lot,” Pierce said. “Not because we didn’t have the right calls and right reads. They came out and did a lot of things defensively we didn’t really expect. Coach Mullen, he kind of just shrunk down the play-calling and just wanted us to go. That was our challenge.”
The Gators took it and ran with it.