KNOXVILLE — With half the game done Saturday afternoon, more than a few Tennessee fans inside Neyland Stadium serenaded their vanishing Volunteers into the locker room with boos. Losing 11 straight games to bitter rival Florida and trailing 21-3 in a 12th can do that to folks.
Yet for some strange, seemingly unknown reason, that's when Team 120 is apparently happiest. It seems to love playing from behind. Down 13-3 to Appalachian State in the season opener, the Vols won 20-13. Down 14-0 early to Virginia Tech in the Battle at Bristol, the Big Orange triumphed 45-24.
So now they gathered at halftime, not exactly finding encouragement from their frustrated fans, even if they had once again filled Neyland Stadium to the rim, perfectly executing an orange and white checkerboard in the process. Those fans booed, of course, because they care. So much. And for so little recent reward where these Gators have been concerned.
"They're hearing the boos at halftime," recalled UT coach Butch Jones, now in his fourth season. "They could have gotten down on themselves."
Could have. Instead, they got down and dirty against Florida. They limited the same Gators who had nearly doubled them in yardage in the opening half (300-162) to the following results on Florida's first six possessions of the final half: punt, punt, punt, punt, interception, punt. Equally impressive, if not more so, none of those possessions lasted longer than three offensive plays not counting punts.
Take away UF's lone second-half score after UT ran off 38 straight points and the Gators' total yardage for the final two quarters was 16 yards.
"You could actually feel the momentum start to change at the end of the first half," quarterback Josh Dobbs said of the 38-28 final score, a score to scream that no one beats the Vols 12 straight times. "We just needed to make a few more plays. This really is a simple game. People make it a lot more complicated than it really is."
Of course, when you're majoring in aerospace engineering, as Dobbs is, there really isn't all that much out there anywhere that's all that complicated.
But breaking an 11-game losing streak to a traditional college football power can be complicated. It can involve physical, mental and emotional issues. Twice in the last two seasons, UT had UF on the ropes only to lose. It blew a 13-point fourth quarter lead just a year ago. Erasing that from your memory bank or at least using it as proper motivation can be far more difficult than Dobbs makes it sound.
"We challenged them a little bit at halftime," Jones said.
Asked to elaborate, he smiled and said, "That's kind of between us."
But whatever he said, it worked. Almost immediately. Though Dobbs threw an interception on UT's opening possession of the third quarter, the defense was everywhere at once.
"We took their soul, really," said Todd Kelly Jr., who took in one of Florida quarterback Austin Appleby's passes for a key interception in the fourth quarter.
And all of that is true. These Vols of so much promise yet so little accomplishment to date were indeed the tougher team, the smarter team, the more impressive team when it mattered most.
For all that we in the media are fond of calling Jones "Coach Cliche" for his endless sayings, they seem to be working. This team did play "complementary" football: offense, defense and the kicking game all working as one. The Vols did "snap and clear" the frustrating first half from their heads, perhaps as well as any UT team has against a ranked opponent.
Let's replay: 38 straight points scored after falling into a 21-0 hole against a team that's beaten you 11 straight times.
Said Jones: "If you don't have character on your football team, that doesn't happen. But we have that. I hope you guys (in the media) understand the resolve and resiliency of this football team."
We do now. At least we should. And so should all those fans who might have prematurely booed. Only a team with resolve and resiliency could fall into a 21-0 hole, look to the sideline and see three of their best defensive players — linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive back Cam Sutton — unable to go and somehow erase all the negatives from their minds.
This isn't to say they don't need to clean up some things. The first half was pretty awful. So was throwing the interception on the first possession of the third period.
As defensive lineman Derek Barnett, who had three tackles for losses and two sacks, noted afterward: "I think we play better when we're down, which is something we have to get corrected."
But in the fourth year of the Jones era, the Vols are now 4-0, and quite possibly the beast of the SEC East, especially if they can knock off Georgia between the hedges on Saturday.
"We are building something special here with character and competitiveness," the coach said after his most special UT win.
Even Neyland's Saturday boo birds would no doubt feel compelled to cheer those words this morning.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org