GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The scoreboards around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium mercifully hit 0:00 to signal the end of a sloppy and odd first half of football.
Hunkered in one of the locker rooms of "The Swamp," first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones told his players, trailing 19th-ranked Florida by 10 points at the time, that it was perhaps the worst possible half they could have played.
It put the Volunteers in a hole they couldn't dig out of.
With a first-time starting quarterback in redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, Tennessee managed just 31 yards of offense and three first downs and committed four of its six turnovers before halftime of Saturday afternoon's 31-17 loss to the Gators, who have won the last nine games in the series.
Playing just 65 miles from his high school, Peterman threw two interceptions, fumbled once on a sack and had a hand in a another fumbled handoff.
"It hurts, and I really feel for him," said Justin Worley, who started the Vols' first three games at quarterback and replaced Peterman late in the second quarter Saturday. "He's got to keep his head up, though. You can't get down on yourself.
"He's a great guy, and I know he beats himself up when things go wrong, but he can't put it all on his own shoulders. He's got to keep his head up, and I'll make sure, and I know the coaching staff will do a good job of that."
Jones opened Tennessee's QB competition as the week began and rewarded Peterman with his first career start after a thorough evaluation. The coach said Peterman had the best and most consistent week of practice.
But Haslam Field and the Swamp are two very different places, though Jones tried to deflect blame away from Peterman. He cited a lack of protection for Peterman in the first quarter and again pointed to the Vols' youth and inconsistency at wide receiver, and three of Peterman's turnovers came in third-and-long situations.
"Against Florida, if you get third-and-long, you're in trouble," Jones said. "We talked about that, that one of the keys to the game was first and second down and being able to generate first downs on first and second downs. We had way too many third-and-long situations, and those are situations offensively we can't be in.
"It's way much more than the quarterback," he added.
Florida had quarterback issues of its own Saturday. Starter Jeff Driskel was lost for the season with a broken tibia on the Gators' second series, and Tyler Murphy, a third-year sophomore who played receiver against South Carolina last season, replaced him.
The Gators tried to hand Tennessee a lead in the first half. Punter Kyle Christy dropped a snap, but Tennessee coughed it up two plays later when Peterman and tailback Rajion Neal had a miscommunication.
Tennessee's Devaun Swafford returned an interception for a touchdown on the play in which Driskel was hurt, tailback Matt Jones fumbled after catching a pass and Vols defensive tackle Daniel McCullers engulfed a fumbled snap that went off Murphy's helmet.
The Vols took possession in Florida territory on three of those four miscues and scored zero points.
"Those are just facts," Neal said. "We've got to capitalize on turnovers and short-end-of-the-field situations."
Florida, meanwhile, turned Peterman's second, third and fourth turnovers into 17 points, and Murphy settled in and commanded two five-minute second-half touchdown drives as the Gators gained 152 yards of offense in the third quarter.
"Losing is never accepted at Tennessee nor tolerated," Jones said, echoing his comments after a 59-14 blowout loss at No. 2 Oregon a week earlier, "but I'm proud of our football team. I thought they showed resiliency. They didn't quit. It gave us an opportunity to be in the game at the end of the game, and we just have to keep getting better, and it's a long football season. There is no panic."
With Worley, who completed 10 of his 23 passes for 149 yards, Tennessee answered with a nice touchdown drive after Florida made it 31-10 early in the fourth quarter, but the junior threw two interceptions -- one he was trying to throw out of bounds and the other on the game's final play -- with the Vols down 14 points.
"I'm disappointed," Jones said, pausing mid-sentence. "I'm angry we lost. But I can also see small steps, and as the head football coach, I've got to look toward that as well.
"We have to keep moving forward," he added. "I start to see it hurting more. It should hurt. The whole state of Tennessee hurts right now, and rightfully so. ... We're going to get it, and this is part of the process: The more you invest, the more it hurts and the more you're willing to sacrifice.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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