Vols learning from late-game stumbles against Florida

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee’s offense racked up 576 yards in last Saturday’s 38-33 win over Florida but could not close out the game after coming up short on a fourth-and-3 situation.

Midway through the fourth quarter of last Saturday's football game inside Neyland Stadium, Tennessee held a 38-21 advantage over Florida, and Volunteers fans were playfully performing the "Gator Chomp."

On the final play of that same contest, Vols cornerback Kamal Hadden intercepted an Anthony Richardson heave from Tennessee's 39-yard line to salvage the 38-33 escape.

Tennessee's second win over Florida since 2005 did not transpire without concerns, as the Vols were outgained 146-22 after grabbing their 17-point advantage, with all three phases contributing to what could have been a historic collapse. The bottom line was the win and a 4-0 start and a No. 8 ranking for the Vols, who are off this week before they travel to LSU, but there are plenty of issues Josh Heupel and his staff have been addressing since Saturday.

"You want to be in a position to take a knee," Heupel said Wednesday. "Defensively, we just didn't do the things that you need to. That's tight coverage and being able to affect the quarterback and getting off the football field. There are obviously some things that we've got to do better. Obviously you don't want to give up an onside kick, because you're putting yourself in a susceptible position.

"There are things in finishing out the game that we need to do a better job of, and that's our entire football team and not just one player or one unit."

Tennessee had only one possession after going up 38-21, and that resulted in a six-play, 22-yard series that consumed three minutes and 37 seconds before a fourth-and-3 pass from Hendon Hooker to tight end Princeton Fant gained just a yard to the Florida 29. The Gators were down 38-27 at that point with 71 seconds remaining, but they needed just 54 seconds to zip 71 yards, pulling within 38-33 on a 3-yard Richardson pass to Ricky Pearsall.

The Vols did pick up one first down via a Florida penalty on their last possession, and Heupel was asked Wednesday whether there was anything he would do differently.

"At the end of the day, we needed a little better execution, and we had a penalty on that drive, too," he said. "You want to finish the football game with the ball in your hands and not let the end of the game play out the way that it did. You want to take control of the game when you have that opportunity.

"I'm glad we got the first first down, but we need to finish the ballgame with the ball in our hands."

Tennessee leads the Southeastern Conference with 559.2 yards and 48.5 points per game behind a frenetic tempo that Hooker has successfully orchestrated to catapult into the Heisman Trophy picture, but Heupel is confident the Vols can be just as effective slowing things down to chew up the clock when necessary.

"There are portions in practice when we operate in a four-minute mode, and I think our kids were completely comfortable in how we were operating," Heupel said. "The effectiveness at times can be a little bit better, but at times it can be really good. I feel like our players and our staff are completely comfortable being able to finish it in a four-minute type of mode."

Of course, the biggest issue Tennessee needs to address during this off week is a pass defense that is surrendering a staggering 309.3 yards per game. The Vols rank 128th in that category among the nation's 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and they are the worst among Power Five programs.

"It's just being a little better in fundamentals, technique and having their eyes in the right place," Heupel said. "It's understanding situational football. It's things that they can and will do here as we continue to move forward."

Youth movement

Tennessee's win over Florida included contributions from a pair of freshmen, end Tyre West and edge rusher Joshua Josephs, on the defensive front. Each was credited with a tackle, while Josephs added a pair of quarterback hurries.

"I thought they played really well," Heupel said. "They had gap integrity in the run game, and they affected the quarterback in some of the passing situations. Tyre has had some tackles this year behind the line of scrimmage, and I think those guys are going to continue to grow as we go.

"When you're deeper and able to play more guys, they're able to play harder for longer and play at a higher level."

Odds and ends

Senior receiver Ramel Keyton on his diving, 43-yard catch against the Gators: "I've watched it a lot." ... Heupel did not provide health updates Wednesday regarding receiver Cedric Tillman, running back Dylan Sampson, and cornerbacks Warren Burrell and Dee Williams. ... Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Bryson Eason on whether there has been more criticism or praise in film sessions since Saturday: "It's been very critical. We've got a lot of things to work on."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.