KNOXVILLE — The heart of the Tennessee defense was on the sideline Saturday afternoon, too hurt to play, even if linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin had twice given it his best college try.
Up on the Neyland Stadium scoreboard, bitter SEC East rival Florida was leading 21-0. Inside Neyland, a lot of nervous Big Orange fans were wondering how they could possibly win this game without defensive back Cam Sutton and linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Reeves-Maybin on the field to grab onto Gators.
And when Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs threw an interception on the first drive of the second half, the Volunteers still down 21-3, it looked as if snapping their 11-game losing streak to the Gators really wasn't meant to be.
But with Florida starting on its own 10, that defense suddenly stiffened. Todd Kelly Jr. held Florida running back Jordan Scarlett to a 2-yard gain. Freshman Baylen Buchanan stopped Scarlett a second time. Then former Baylor School standout Colton Jumper — starting in place of the injured Kirkland — and Emmanuel Moseley stopped Scarlett for no gain.
The Gators punted. UT scored to pull within 21-10. It won 38-28, its 10th straight victory dating back to last season.
"I was really proud of our linebackers," Reeves-Maybin said. "Jumper played great at Mike (middle linebacker)."
Added losing coach Jim McElwain: "We never flipped the field offensively in the third quarter. We didn't have many plays or yards when we came up with the interception. The series that was telling was when we got a pick and then not doing anything. To their credit, they came in and took it from us."
The stats were stunning: Take away the Gators' 86-yard scoring drive late in the game after they trailed 38-21 and they gained 16 yards the whole second half.
McElwain was particularly impressed with a UT defensive front that repeatedly dominated the Gators' offensive front.
"They have a couple of guys on the edges who are pretty good," the second-year Gators coach said.
Perhaps the fiercest of those was Barnett, who seemed to single-handedly blow up the Florida offense after the break.
"We could have gotten down at halftime, but we didn't," said the junior from Nashville. "That says a lot about this team."
It says a lot that these short-handed Vols recorded seven tackles for losses, had two sacks (both by Barnett) and hurried the quarterback three times.
It said enough to senior defensive lineman Corey Vereen that he couldn't wait to call his girlfriend — a Florida student — and finally gloat a bit in victory.
"I've waited four years for this," the Florida native said. "I haven't called her yet, but you better believe I will as soon as we're done (with interviews). I've got her on speed dial."
It was indeed impressive stuff, and Vols coach Butch Jones may have framed his short-handed defense's admirable effort best.
"A lot of defenses can't recover from (injuries like) that," he said. "But they recovered."
And because they did, they recovered just in time to keep the team undefeated.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com