GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Tennessee hoped that starting redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Peterman would ignite the offense.
It did anything but that.
The Vols (2-2, 0-1 SEC) fell flat in the first half under Peterman’s command, turning the ball over four times and mustering just 29 yards of total offense before the half in what turned into a 31-17 win for the Florida Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC).
Peterman wasn’t completely to blame, according to Tennessee coach Butch Jones. The Vols couldn’t get in much of a rhythm offensively. Peterman wasn’t getting great protection. Receivers weren’t getting open.
“He had a great week of preparation,” Jones said of the native of Fruit Cove, Fla., locat3e approximately 70 miles from Gainesville. “A lot of it, to the naked eye, everyone wants to point to the quarterback, but I didn’t think we did a good job [as an entire team], particularly in the first half, really the first quarter.”
It’s hard to deny Peterman was shaky, though. He was involved in two fumbles in the first five plays of the game, the first one coming on a botched handoff to running back Rajion Neal. The second came when he was sacked inside the Florida 10, setting the Gators up for an easy field goal.
Peterman threw two more interceptions before eventually being pulled before the end of the first half. Add two second-half interceptions from quarterback Justin Worley, who came in for Peterman, and UT finished with a season-high six turnovers.
“To beat good team [on the road], first and foremost, you can’t turn the ball over,” Jones said. “Way too many turnovers. When you go on the road, it’s all about creating your own momentum – creating your own breaks.”
In spite of the offensive ineptness in the first half, the Vols managed to stay in the game. They went into the half down 17-7, thanks to some help from the defense. True freshman walk-on cornerback Devaun Swafford had a pick-six that covered 62 yards to put the Vols up 7-0 early. And despite constantly being put back on the field, the D refused to let Florida run away.
The Gators only huge play in the first half came via a 52-yard reception and run by wide receiver Solomon Patton.
“Our defense was on the field a lot,” Jones said. “But I will tell you this, and I’ve told you before – losing is never accepted or tolerated at Tennessee, but I’m proud of our football team. I thought they showed resiliency.”
Florida also had to call on a different quarterback, but not by its own choosing. Starter Jeff Driskel went down early in the first quarter and was unable to return. Florida coach Will Muschamp confirmed after the year that Driskel injured his ankle and will require season-ending surgery.
Backup Tyler Murphy, who hadn’t thrown a pass all year, filled in admirably.
After a few shaky moments early, Murphy settled down and managed the Florida offense – completing 8-of-14 passes for 134 yard, adding 84 yards on the ground and scoring two total touchdowns.
“[Murphy] did a fantastic job coming into these circumstances and performing well,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp. “He made some huge stirs in the game for us … he kept some drives alive with his feet and I thought he managed the game extremely well and made plays.”
Worley’s return for Tennessee stabilized the offense at times, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the lead. He completed 10-of-23 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. He threw two interceptions as well, hurting UT’s comeback chances.
Two nice second-half drives by the Gators – both ending in touchdown runs – helped salt away the win. An 18-yard touchdown reception by UT receiver Pig Howard pulled the Vols within 14 early in the first half. They couldn’t get it any closer.
Now Tennessee moves forward without a clear-cut answer at quarterback and in search of an identity on offense. Jones said he would need to evaluate the film, but he expects more open competition at the quarterback spot. The Vols host South Alabama (2-1) next week before returning to the SEC grind.
"It's a long football season, there's no panic,” Jones said. “We're 2-2. A lot of teams would like to be 2-2 right now."
Added Howard: “We keep close as a team. We’ve all been through adversity. At the end of the day we’re going to keep pushing. It’s not going to break us at all.”
• Florida cornerback Brian Poole was ejected for targeting a defenseless receiver early in the fourth quarter.
• Tennessee freshman defensive end Corey Vereen made his UT debut after missing the first three games with a knee injury.
• Offensive lineman Mack Crowder and receiver Johnathon Johnson, who were questionable coming into Saturday, both did not play against the Gators.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga