GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tennessee junior running back John Kelly paced the offense in a 26-20 loss at Florida on Saturday despite getting only one carry during the Volunteers' three trips to the red zone.
The Vols (2-1) struggled with penalties, a turnover and questionable play calling on their three surges inside the Florida 20-yard-line, netting only three points. But Kelly, who ran for 141 yards and had another 96 receiving yards in the game, was not pointing any fingers after the game.
"I trust Coach Scott's play calling all the way," Kelly said of first-year offensive coordinator Larry Scott.
A look back shows Tennessee's seemingly minimal use of Kelly in the third quarter likely helped him stay fresh for a fantastic fourth quarter. The 5-foot-9 dynamo from Detroit amassed 150 of his 237 total yards on eight touches in the final quarter after Tennessee strayed from running him during a pair of red-zone trips in the third.
Kelly ran for 12 yards on consecutive plays to get Tennessee to Florida's 25-yard-line while the Vols trailed 6-3 soon after halftime. His only involvement in the possession's next 10 plays came on a pair of catches that netted a combined negative-1 yard. The series ended in an interception.
Tennessee's trip to the red zone on its next series resulted in a missed field goal. Kelly never touched the ball.
Then came his highlight reel fourth quarter.
His final frame consisted of a 29-yard catch, an 18-yard run, a 34-yard touchdown run and a 52-yard screen pass, just to name the plays that reached double-digit yardage.
"He ran with great passion and great energy," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Make no mistake about it, he's the heart and soul of our football team. I think our players feed off him and just can't say enough about his effort tonight."
When an interception by Tennessee's Rashaan Gaulden gave the Vols a chance to tie or take the lead with 3:57 left, Kelly ran for 5, 8 and 4 yards to help Tennessee go inside the Florida 10-yard-line.
The Vols did not run him again, instead going with three consecutive passes, all of them incomplete and two of them intended for Kelly. Aaron Medley kicked a game-tying field goal, and then the Gators (1-1) won the game on a 63-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
"We're not going to play the blame game or nothing like that," Kelly said. "We're just going to stay together and continue to keep pushing. It's a long season. It's only week three, going on week four, so we've got some fight left in us."
Kelly enters this Saturday's home game against UMass (0-4) as the team's statistical leader in receptions (16) and rushing yards (349) while also serving as the emotional leader of a unit still finding its direction.
"It's not only his running the ball on the field, but it's his leadership off the field," senior offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said. "Over on the sideline, he'll come over encouraging and telling us we've got it. Then he gets out on the field and makes these huge plays for us. It's no surprise — he's the same way in practice. But obviously J.K. is huge for us."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.