Gators' defense returns to form against Vols

Sep 21, 2019 | 0 comments

Florida’s defense looked a bit out of sorts last week at Kentucky, surrendering 407 yards and allowing the Wildcats to convert eight of 15 third downs.

In the season-opener against Miami, they struggled to tackle and looked lost at linebacker and safety.

They entered Saturday’s bout with Tennessee without starting defensive end Jabari Zuniga and No. 1 corner CJ Henderson due to ankle injuries. Safety Donovan Stiner had to sit out the first half due to a targeting foul he committed against UK. On top of all that, the game started at noon, a time slot that has been a thorn in the Gators’ side for years.

Would the defense continue to struggle and allow an overmatched opponent to hang around once again?

Not this time. Florida’s defense dominated the game, limiting the Volunteers (1-3, 0-1 SEC) to 239 total yards and just 12 first downs in the No. 9 Gators’ 34-3 win. Tennessee rushed for just 88 yards at 3.3 yards-per-rush. Florida recorded four sacks and eight tackles-for-loss. It was a consistent performance, with few missed tackles and only one major blown coverage.

“You always want to try to get three-and-outs and stuff like that, and doing that today gave [the offense] a lot of energy,” cornerback Marco Wilson said. “Even if they messed up on the drive before, we get off the field quick and get them back out there. We always want our offense on the field as long as possible.

“We're missing some pieces right now, but the young guys are getting in and doing a great job of maturing and understanding what they need to do and go out there. So far, we're playing great without all the guys that we're missing but, when they come back, it'll be even better. Right now, I'm just happy that they're adapting the right way."

They completely controlled the game from the first snap to the last at all three levels. Every time it looked like the Vols were starting to build some momentum offensively to get back into the game, the Gators’ defense responded with a big play.

After UF (4-0, 2-0) quarterback Kyle Trask lost a fumble in the first quarter, the Volunteers marched to the Gators’ 3-yard line, looking to tie the score at seven. On third-and-goal, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano fired a bullet into traffic to Jauan Jennings. Safety Shawn Davis stuck his hand in the way, and the ball ricocheted into the air off of one of their hands. Trey Dean lunged into the end zone and made the interception to preserve the lead.

On Tennessee’s next possession, Guarantano fired a pass right into the chest of Wilson, who played perhaps the worst game of his career against Kentucky. Wilson juggled the ball but eventually hauled it in for his first career interception.

The Volunteers benched Guarantano in favor of Brian Maurer in the second half. It didn’t matter. On his second drive, he tried squeezing a pass through tight coverage to tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson. Wilson nailed Wood-Anderson as soon as the ball hit his hands, and Amari Burney made the diving interception for his first career pick. It marked the first time since 2012 that UF intercepted three passes in consecutive games.

“Just to see him get that pick, it’s good for him and good for the defense to understand that his confidence is back, his swagger is back,” defensive end Jonathan Greenard said. “He never lost it. Just seeing him get the interception, what he’s capable of doing. It was good for him.”

Greenard forced a fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter. A Tennessee lineman appeared to dive on the ball, but it somehow slid right through him. Burney recovered it for the fourth and final turnover of the game. It was his first career fumble recovery.

“Just get to the ball,” Burney said. “Coach harps on that. No loafin’, just get to the ball. They jumped on it, and I was just running to the ball, and I seen it pop out. It was like, ‘Just get the ball. Don’t try to scoop it. Just fall on it, so the offense can go out there and drive down the field and score.’”

Despite Trask turning the ball over three times, the Gators still won the turnover battle thanks to their defense.

“Just bringing the [defense’s] mindset back, just to create turnovers, so when opponents look at us, they know that we’re going to create turnovers,” Dean said. “So, put a little fear in their heart.”

Individually, Greenard continued to terrorize offensive linemen. He recorded one sack, two tackles-for-loss, a forced fumble and three pass breakups. To put it in basketball terms, he was a “stat sheet stuffer.” He was in the backfield on seemingly every play. He said not having Zuniga made him step his game up.

"I took it as a chip on my shoulder somewhat, but I knew we had guys around the ball that can make some plays,” he said. “I just continued to do my job and not to do anything out of the ordinary.”

His first deflected pass of the day saved a certain touchdown, as tight end Austin Pope was wide open in the right side of the end zone. Dean made his diving interception on the next play.

"I might be a DB or something now,” he said. “Shoot, Coach might need to make a couple of plays and adjustments for me. That's the most I've ever had. I didn't even know I saved a touchdown until they told me when I got to the sideline. Just playing my game, just trying to do what I can."

The Gators’ schedule is about to crank up a notch. After playing FCS Towson next weekend, they’ll face Auburn, LSU and Georgia in a span of five weeks. With the offense still struggling to run the ball and getting in its own way with turnovers, they could use some more performances like the one they got against the Vols.

Coach Dan Mullen said he was mostly pleased with the unit’s performance, although he wants them to show better situational awareness at times, such as not committing penalties on second- and third-and-longs to extend drives.

Greenard echoed that sentiment and said that, while they played well on Saturday, this defense still has a lot of untapped potential.

“The crazy part is we're only scratching the surface of what we really can do,” he said. “Just with that happening, I'm excited about where we are right now. It's still somewhat early, midway through the season. It's not our best performance. We've got a lot of things to work on still. That's not our best performance. It was a greater performance than what we did, and we had some pretty good numbers, but I just know what we're capable of and what we can do."

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