That signature win slipped away from No. 23 Tennessee with a signature moment.
As soon as Florida’s Trey Burton took that direct snap, faked the handoff, got around the right side, delivered a stiff arm and dashed 80 yards down the sideline for the game-tying touchdown, that familiar lowly feeling must have punched Vols fans in the stomach.
More than 18 minutes remained but the momentum clearly shifted. A minute later, Tennessee turned the ball right back over to the No. 18 Gators, who promptly scored again and were off to a 37-20 victory — their eightth straight against UT — in front of a sellout crowd at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
In a game that was supposed to mark UT’s return to prominence, the Vols showed, that until a significant breakthrough, they are merely pretenders.
In two-plus seasons as coach, Derek Dooley has failed to beat an SEC team with a winning record. If you’re counting at home, Tennessee has won just three league games — twice against Vanderbilt and once over Kentucky.
Winning on the big stage is essential in the regrowth of the program. Dooley’s job security depends on it.
According to him, winning these games comes down to two things — limiting turnovers and big plays. Against Florida, the Vols came up short on both accounts, especially in the second half.
Quarterback Tyler Bray threw his first two interceptions of the season — his second coming just moments after Burton’s touchdown.
Tennessee (2-1) also gave up three plays longer than 45 yards. The last sunk the Vols and gave Florida a two-touchdown lead. Quarterback Jeff Driskell victimized a defense that Dooley said was confused late in the game about certain assignments and routes. That was obvious when Driskell passed over a UT blitz to find Frankie Hammond. He then eluded cornerback Marsalis Teague, who took a poor angle, and raced to a 75-yard touchdown.
The Vols couldn’t stop the run, either. Mike Gillislee had 115 yards on 18 carries, contributing to 336 rushing yards and 555 total yards.
In the process, any momentum Dooley and Tennessee gained over the last nine months slipped away.
• Middle Tennessee State 48, Memphis 30: In an in-state battle to stay relevant, the Blue Raiders (2-1) were sound against the winless Tigers (0-3). MTSU forced four turnovers, including three fumbles, and were balanced on offense to move above .500 for the first time since the 2009 season.
• Oregon 63, Tennessee Tech 14: The Golden Eagles (2-1) threw a scare into the fourth-ranked team in the country. Unfortunately, there were still more than 58 minutes left. Tech’s 7-0 lead was brief as the Ducks scored 21 points by the end of the quarter and were well on their way to a rout.
BY THE NUMBERS
0 – sacks allowed by MTSU in three games this season.
3 – touchdowns receiver Da’Rick Rogers has in as many games. The UT transfer has fit in just nicely at Tennessee Tech, catching 11 passes from his former high school teammate Tre Lamb, including a 23-yarder for the first touchdown against Oregon.
4 – yards Vanderbilt running back Warren Norman picked up on his first carry since Oct. 30, 2010. The former SEC Freshman of the Year finished with eight rushes for 26 yards and a touchdown in a 58-0 rout of Presbyterian.
65 – straight attempts without an interception for Tyler Bray until Florida linebacker Lerentee McCray snapped that streak in the first quarter. It was the first interception for the UT quarterback since the final pass of 2011. He was also picked off later in the third quarter.
652 – yards Oregon racked up against Tennessee Tech. The Ducks were slightly better through the air with 328 passing yards but five of their nine touchdowns were scored on the ground.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Austin Peay receiver Devin Stark
The senior had just six catches in his first two games. He matched that total by halftime against TSU and finished with nine catches for a career-high 124 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot-4 standout from Memphis made the play of the game midway through the first quarter. Against tight coverage by Steven Godbolt, Stark climbed the stairs, made a spectacular one-handed grab, fell to his back and held on for a 20-yard touchdown that is sure to make highlight reels.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“I thought we played with relentless with effort on both sides of the ball. ... I thought we played really hard. I thought we played with great effort. I thought our passion, our enthusiasm, our excitement level, our energy level was really high. And that’s how you got to play this game.” — MTSU coach Rick Stockstill
Who to start at QB? Austyn Carta-Samuels or Jordan Rodgers? Vanderbilt coach James Franklin has a big decision to make as the Commodores travel to No. 5 Georgia. ... Akron is a welcome sight for UT as the Vols try to regain some confidence before two straight SEC road games against Georgia and Mississippi State. ... TSU coach Rod Reed returns to Bethune-Cookman, where he served as an assistant, as the Tigers try to stay undefeated. ... MTSU gets a much-needed bye and two weeks to prepare for Georgia Tech and its triple option offense. The Blue Raiders have surrendered 91 points to the Yellow Jackets the last two years. ... Tech, the defending Ohio Valley Conference champ, opens league play on the road at Southeast Missouri State.