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VOL. 7 | NO. 41 | Saturday, October 4, 2014

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Dave Link

Is This the Year the Vols Stomp the Chomp?

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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KNOXVILLE – Much has happened since Tennessee placekicker James Wilhoit booted a 50-yarder with seven seconds remaining and the No. 13-ranked Vols beat No. 11 Florida 30-28 at Neyland Stadium.

Remember that night?

It was Sept. 18, 2004. The game was televised by CBS, prime time, and the record crowd of 109,061 was in a frenzy.

Florida trailed 28-21 when UT’s Eric Ainge threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jayson Swain with 4:17 left. Wilhoit missed the potential tying PAT kick, but the Vols’ defense held and gave UT’s kicker a chance for redemption with the winning field goal.

Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit (25) celebrates after kicking the game-winning, 50-yard field goal against Florida in Knoxville in 2004.

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Seems like so, so long ago for UT fans.

Since then, Florida has won nine consecutive games against the Vols, and the series has faded from national and even SEC prominence. Yet there is plenty riding on Saturday’s noon game at Neyland, both for UT and Florida.

The Vols (2-2, 0-1 SEC) certainly see a vulnerable team in Florida (2-1, 1-1). The Gators needed three overtimes to beat Kentucky, 36-30, at The Swamp on Sept. 13, and the next week were blown out the second half of a 42-21 loss at Alabama.

Florida had an open date last Saturday, while UT lost at Georgia, 35-32.

Tennessee kicker James Wilhoit boots the game-winning, 50-yard field goal with six seconds remaining in No. 13 Tennessee’s 30-28 win against 11th-ranked Florida in 2004 at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee has not defeated Florida since, but is a slight favorite to end the losing streak this week.

(AP File Photo/Mark Humphrey)

It wasn’t the best of timing for a bye week for the Gators, whose fans were seething over the loss to the Tide and its 645 offensive yards, the most ever allowed by a Florida defense.

Fourth-year coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat from Gator Nation, its venom going back to the 2012 Sugar Bowl when the Gators lost to Louisville. Florida went 4-8 last season and come to Neyland Stadium this week having lost 10 of their last 16 games.

How bad are times in Gainesville?

“Now, the negativity is at a fever pitch,” writes Pat Dooley, longtime columnist for the Gainesville Sun. “A victory in Knoxville wouldn’t necessarily right the ship, but it would stop it from taking on water,” he wrote. “Florida has only played three games, but it’s the last 16 games that have Muschamp’s pants on fire.”

Ouch.

Of course, UT fans aren’t worried about Muschamp, and they are sick of the Gator Chomp. Nine years is a long time to take losing to Florida.

UT coach Butch Jones knows about the losing streak, but dismisses it as insignificant for his team.

“I can’t speak of the past,” Jones says. “All I know is the present, and Team 118 (at UT) controls that this week, so the great thing is, most of our football team hasn’t even been here for those games. I can’t comment on what’s gone on in the past. All I know is we have to control what we can control.”

Jones has UT fans believing again, despite two consecutive road losses. The Vols’ 34-10 loss at No. 4 Oklahoma on Sept. 13 was predictable, being the first road game of the season for a youthful team. The competitive loss at No. 12 Georgia has the fan base almost welcoming Florida to Neyland Stadium.

Again, Jones won’t be too positive about losses to Oklahoma and Georgia.

“Everything is about a learning experience, and we play the games to win,” Jones says. “That’s the standard and expectation. I don’t believe in moral victories, but I do think some confidence was born, and I do think going on the road and playing a talented team like Oklahoma, prime time national television, I do think that (we) benefitted, just like going on the road and playing Georgia.”

UT can avoid a seventh consecutive 0-2 start in the SEC – and claim a spot in the middle of the wide-open Eastern Division – with a victory against Florida.

Every team in the East has at least one loss entering the weekend except Missouri (4-1, 1-0), which lost to Indiana, 31-27, in a non-conference game before winning 21-20 at South Carolina last week.

But this is Florida, and nine years is enough.

Jones has a rare one-word answer when asked if anyone has told him how important it is for UT to beat Florida:

“Numerous.”

Key matchups

Justin Worley vs. Gators’ secondary: Florida’s pass defense was not good in the triple-overtime victory over Kentucky and the loss to Alabama, and UT quarterback Justin Worley has been sharp when given time to throw.

Kentucky’s Patrick Towles threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns while completing 24 of 45 passes, but was intercepted three times. Alabama’s Blake Sims threw for a career-high 445 yards and four touchdowns while completing 23 of 33 with one interception – beating the Gators often with the deep ball.

Worley has completed 60 percent of his passes this year for 985 yards and nine touchdowns with three interceptions. Against Georgia, Worley was 23 of 35 passing for 264 yards for three touchdowns with no interceptions, but missed three possessions after taking a hit on his right arm.

Florida has one of the nation’s top cornerbacks in Vernon Hargreaves III, but the Gators haven’t been successful in man-to-man or zone cover schemes. They’re giving up 287.7 passing yards per game.

Two of UT’s top two receivers, Josh Smith and Von Pearson, are questionable for the Florida game, but they were also out for the Georgia game.

Vols offensive line vs. Florida’s pass rush: UT’s quarterback protection against Georgia was better than it was at Oklahoma, which had five sacks (two others were called back for penalties) and put 16 hits on Worley.

Against Georgia, Worley was sacked twice but also took several big hits on the pass rush – including one by linebacker Jordan Jenkins, whose helmet popped Worley’s elbow and sent him to the sidelines for three series.

Florida has six sacks for minus 46 yards this season. Senior linebacker Neiron Ball and tackle Alex McCallister have two sacks each. The Gators have 21 quarterback hurries this season.

“It’s a work in progress, and again, I think sometimes our lack of strength shows just because of our youth,” Jones says of UT’s offensive line. “They haven’t been in a full-time strength and conditioning program.

“I think some of the line calls, a couple of sacks, were basically communicative mistakes where we didn’t identify the front properly, so we think some of those obviously are correctable. … You look at these kids, they’ve only played in four games together, and some of them only two games together, so it’s kind of right where we thought it would be, but I do see progress every day.”

UT’s run vs. Gators’ run ‘D’: One constant has remained during Florida’s nine-game winning streak over the Vols. The Gators have rushed for more yards than the Vols in every victory during the streak.

Florida is averaging 201 rushing yards per game (seventh in the SEC), and the Vols are averaging 126.8 yards (13th in the SEC).

UT senior Marlin Lane has started every game, but hasn’t been nearly as productive (138 yards, 3.5 per carry) as true freshman Jalen Hurd (328 yards, 4.6 per carry).

“We want great balance (rushing and passing),” Jones said. “We take great pride in being a balanced offense.

Notable notes

Defending Driskel: Florida junior QB Jeff Driskel completed just 9 of 28 passes for 93 yards with two interceptions against Alabama, but led the team in rushing with 59 yards on 11 carries.

Driskel, who suffered a broken leg early in Florida’s 31-17 victory over UT last year, has completed 56 percent of his passes this season for 636 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions.

“Driskel presents a whole other dynamic to our defense,” Jones says. “We saw that in Arkansas State with (Fredi) Knighten. Driskel can throw the football. There’s a reason why he was the No. 1 recruited quarterback in the country. I’ve been impressed with his play. As a coaching staff, they’re playing to his strengths.”

Texts Time: Jones received more than 40 texts from former UT players who had positive comments after the Vols’ game against Georgia.

UT’s coach said he shared some of those texts with his players.

“Our former players have been extremely supportive, and they understand what’s going on here at Tennessee,” Jones says. “They understand the work that needs to be done. They understand the work that’s already been done, and they’re proud of their alma mater.

“And to have Peyton Manning on the sideline and in the locker room (at Georgia) on his bye week, his only bye week, they understand where this football program is headed, and I know they’re extremely encouraged and excited with the progress we’re making.”

Gators’ Takeaways: Florida is among the tops in the nation with 12 takeaways through three games (five interceptions, seven fumble recoveries).

The Gators had one interception and recovered four fumbles against Eastern Michigan; had three interceptions against Kentucky; and had one interception and recovered three fumbles against Alabama.

UT has eight takeaways in four games – five interceptions and three fumble recoveries. The Vols have lost three fumbles and been intercepted three times.

Checkerboard Plan: UT fans Tim McLeod and Jonathan Briehl developed a website, CheckerNeyland.com, early in the week for the Florida game for UT fans to wear either orange or white, depending on their seat locations.

Fans were able to log onto the site and wear the right attire for Neyland Stadium to resemble an orange and white checkerboard similar to the end zones.

Jones was all for the idea.

“Most places, they have to manufacture that (idea), whereas our fans come out, and it’s on them,” Jones says. “I’m excited. They have created so much positive energy and excitement surrounding our football program.”

UT Third-Down Defense: The Vols lead the nation in defensive third-down percentage. Opponents have converted first downs on 11-of-53 third-down plays (20.8 percent) against UT. Georgia was 1 of 10 on third down against the Vols.

Receiver Streak: Florida senior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar has caught at least one pass in 31 consecutive games, a streak that ranks third all-time on the Gators’ list.

Dunbar extended the streak with a 17-yard catch against Alabama, but it was his only catch of the game. Ike Hilliard had a 35-game streak (1994-97) and Cris Collinsworth a 34-game streak (1978-80) of consecutive games with a catch.

UT-Florida Connections: Florida OC Kurt Roper was running backs coach at UT from 2006-07.

UT recruiting coordinator/wide receivers coach Zach Azzani was passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach at Florida in 2010.

Vols running backs coach Robert Gillespie was a four-year letterman as a running back at Florida, served as team captain in 2001, and rushed for 1,854 career yards.

UT has 13 players from Florida, while Florida has no players from Tennessee.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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