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Jalen Hurd (1), right, celebrates his touchdown with his teammates. Hurd's score made the talley Florida 21, Tennessee 14. The Florida Gators visited the Tennessee Volunteers in a important SEC football contest at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016.

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Vols rejoice in momentous comeback win over Florida, 38-28

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KNOXVILLE — As his teammates erupted in jubilation around him and 100,000-plus orange-and-white clad fans released 11 years of pent-up frustration, Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett stoically strolled across the Neyland Stadium field.

Barnett, his teammates and a starving fan base all deserved to take in the moment in the immediate aftermath of a momentous win for the program.

The Volunteers looked nothing like a team coming off a miserable first-half performance while scoring 35 second-half points to reverse a 21-0 first-half deficit in a stunning comeback to snap the Gators' 11-year winning streak in the series with a 38-28 triumph in front of a euphoric checkerboarded home crowd.

"I just love watching my teammates celebrate," Barnett said. "I like to sit back and watch them and watch it all happen. I don't want to celebrate and miss the enjoyment.

"I just sit back and watch everybody celebrate, and it's a good feeling."

The volume of the celebration as the clock hit zeros far drowned out the boos raining down on the Vols as they ran to the locker room down 21-3 at halftime.

After hearing months of trash-talking from the Gators and the disapproval of their own fans in the first half, Tennessee had no choice but to respond and play with desperation.

"That first half of football, that wasn't us," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "That was not us. Every man to a man knew it. We came out in the second half, and I knew this football team was not going to be denied. I knew at the hotel. I knew it today. There was a sense of calmness and confidence.

"They hear all the noise of whatever streak it was, they're hearing it, they're hearing the boos at halftime. They could have folded. They could have come in and they could have gotten down on themselves, and they didn't. They responded like you would want them to respond."

Quarterback Josh Dobbs overcame some drops by his supporting cast and two interceptions, including one in the end zone, to finish with 399 yards of offense and five touchdowns (four passing and one rushing).

Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings chipped in with big plays, and tight end Ethan Wolf bounced back from two brutal drops in the first half to catch a touchdown in the third quarter.

"We just took it to them, man," Jennings said. "We didn't talk any. We just played the game."

While the offense got going the defense, missing three of its star players with cornerback Cameron Sutton and Darrin Kirkland Jr. out and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin lasting only a couple of series, held Florida without a first down until it was 38-21 midway through the fourth quarter.

"A lot of defenses can't recover from that," Jones said, "but they recovered."

Florida had 300 yards of offense in the first half and 102 in the second half as Tennessee's defensive line took control.

"We just kind of looked at each other in the locker room," said defensive tackle Danny O'Brien, "and we were like, 'It's up to us.' The coaches have been saying that to us. Our defensive line is our strong point, and we just had to show up and we had to take over the game, and that's what we did."

After trailing Appalachian State by 10 and Virginia Tech by 14, Tennessee knew it had comeback capability, but what made Saturday's reversal so stunning was how it followed an abysmal first half for the Vols.

Yet the style and the opponent made it one of Tennessee's sweetest wins in a long time.

"It was hard. It was annoying as a Tennessee fan, watching Tennessee lose for 11 straight years," safety and Knoxville native Todd Kelly Jr. said. "I woke up this morning and I remembered when I was at the game when they won (in 2004). I was 8 years old when James Wilhoit made that field goal.

"It was just in the back in my mind, thinking, 'Wow, what if we did this? How amazing would it be in Knoxville if we get this victory.' I had that in the back of my head all four quarters. I just wanted to keep pushing, keep fighting and never give up, because I knew what that feeling was like and now people have that feeling."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

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