Wiedmer: UT nightmares increasingly 63 yards long

Wiedmer: UT nightmares increasingly 63 yards long

September 17th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Florida's Tyrie Cleveland, bottom left, celebrates his game-winning touchdown with fellow wide receiver Brandon Powell as Tennessee defensive back Micah Abernathy hangs his head in despair after the Vols lost 26-20.

Photo by John Raoux

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Cheer up, you despondent, dispirited, depressed, disturbed and disgusted University of Tennessee football fans.

Sure, it hurts, this 26-20 loss to Florida you just suffered inside the Gators' Swamp on the very last play of Saturday's SEC East showdown.

Those rowdy, rascally reptiles basically had to go 63 yards in a single play from their own 37 to beat you or you were going to overtime, and if the game went beyond regulation, every single one of the 87,736 who were standing on their feet inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (the Swamp's official name) knew the Volunteers were going to win atop Steve Spurrier-Florida Field for the first time since 2003.

Or as Tennessee senior tight end Ethan Wolf observed, a wan smile attempting to hide his considerable pain: "We thought we had them exactly where we wanted them. We wanted to go to overtime."

But then it happened. Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks somehow escaped a minimal Big Orange pass rush and heaved the football 70 yards down the field toward Tyrie Cleveland, who's from Houston, which means he has had a double dose of fret and fear these past few weeks. The Gators wide receiver not only has had to worry about the devastation Hurricane Irma dumped on the Sunshine State this past week; before that, and quite possibly far worse than that, he had the horror of Hurricane Harvey on his hometown and state.

And maybe that's the one explanation for Cleveland catching that ball in the end zone with no time on the clock to turn a certain overtime into another comeback victory for the Gators over the Vols. Maybe it had something to do with the bigger picture of delivering a bit of joy to a region of the country that so needs something to feel joyous about.

But this is what should really cheer you up, Tennessee football fan — or make you jump off Rocky Top — depending on whether you view Vols head ball coach Butch Jones having a half-full or half-empty brain when it comes to situational football.

Merely consider that the last time the Vols entered the Swamp in 2015, the Gators left 1:29 on the clock after completing (you can't make this stuff up) a 63-yard touchdown pass for the final score in a 28-27 win after trailing by 13 points early in the fourth quarter.

This time, however, that 63-yard scoring strike came as the clock was ticking to zero, which surely means that when the Big Orange next returns to the Swamp in 2019, Florida will run out of time or miracles or both.

(Just to be safe, though, if Florida is again 63 yards from the goal line with the game on the line, Jones — or whoever else might be coaching the Vols by then — might want to order a prevent defense. Better yet, he could instruct his players to draw a pass-interference penalty if a receiver somehow gets behind them rather than give up a game-losing touchdown.)

Nevertheless, Tennessee did somehow lose this one, and it might be time to question just how well Jones grasps situational football, how much feel he has for time and distance and momentum.

After all, when tailback John Kelly has already piled up 236 total yards by land and air, you've got first-and-goal on the Florida 9 and two timeouts left, and you don't hand Kelly the football a single time before kicking a field goal you believe will force overtime, something's wrong.

And, yes, I know coaches called a pass play to Kelly that almost assuredly would have been a score if quarterback Quinten Dormady had thrown a better pass. But he didn't, and then two more passes fell incomplete. Aaron Medley was forced to kick that tying field goal with 50 seconds to go and Florida still owning timeouts rather than handing it to Kelly, who had averaged 14 yards the previous five times he'd touched the ball.

Then there was that first-and-goal inside the Florida 1 with around eight minutes left in the third period. Again, you've got Kelly, who was growing stronger by the carry against a wearying Florida defense. But instead of moving Dormady under center and handing off two or three times to the pit bull Kelly, there's a penalty, then two Dormady incompletions and, finally, stunningly, a Dormady interception.

For as much as that single, final play will hurt, Jones was right to say that "there were many plays prior to that that we didn't make." Yet he was also right with this observation: "The key factor, in my opinion, in this game was situational football. Red zone, goal line, those were the critical plays we didn't make."

Instead, they gave up their second 63-yard game-losing touchdown pass to the Gators in two years. Before that, they missed three field goals and blew three chances to score touchdowns in the red zone, at least partly because Dormady threw three interceptions.

"Sometimes things like that are really special," Florida coach Jim McElwain said after his team's victory. "I've got some images burned in my mind that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life."

Unfortunately, so does the Big Orange Nation, and they're all beginning to cover 63 yards of Swamp land.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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