Victory over Vols reveals big-play potential for a team still searching for an identity

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The International Herald Tribune

The International Herald Tribune Writer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Moments into his postgame news conference, Florida coach Urban Meyer seemed to pause and consider the uneven play of the 10th-ranked Gators. He said he understood that his team, which is dotted with freshmen, redshirt freshmen and first-time starters, had not come together yet.

“That was kind of who we are right now,” Meyer said, trying to sum up Florida’s 31-17 victory Saturday on the road against Tennessee.

The Gators (3-0) alternated among being average, good and very good as they opened their Southeastern Conference schedule. They were maddeningly inefficient, but also intriguing because of their big-play potential

The Vols (1-2), who were overwhelmed by visiting Oregon last week, 48-13, were within 24-17 early in the fourth quarter before the Gators closed out their win with one last burst of harassing defense against Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms, who was sacked six times and intercepted twice.

Florida started the season ranked fourth, but it slid in the polls after disjointed wins against Miami of Ohio and South Florida. The Gators were easily identifiable from 2007 to 2009 – they belonged to Tim Tebow – but this team is still searching for an identity.

Meyer and offensive coordinator Steve Addazio tried to attack the Vols with Jeff Demps, a speedy running back, but he needed 26 carries to gain 73 yards. Running the ball was difficult because the Gators’ first-choice offensive line, beset by injuries and position switches in the first two games, is still learning to play together.

“This offense, minus Tebow, you’ve got to find guys to run the ball because we’re going to be a physical team,” Meyer said. “I was not overly pleased with the way we ran the ball.”

The Gators’ offensive line protected well on passing downs, but when it was asked to block for Demps on his stretch runs to the outside, there were breakdowns. There were other problems, too: a snap bouncing back to quarterback John Brantley in the shotgun, illegal formations and clock management issues.

The Gators’ best player on offense was Brantley, but he was limited because the Gators were focusing on running the ball. Brantley, a junior making his first S.E.C. start, completed 14 of 23 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions.

He was at his best on third down; the Gators converted 8 of 14 third-down plays, including 6 of 9 pass attempts.

“We never could affect the quarterback,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said.

Brantley came into the postgame news conference with a hoarse voice from screaming at his team to line up correctly. But while the offense seemed disjointed at times, a playmaking defense made up for its flaws.

In the second quarter, after Florida fumbled a punt, Tennessee was at the Gators’ 3 when middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic intercepted a pass by Simms in the end zone to keep Florida ahead, 7-3.

In the third quarter, after Tennessee tied the score, 10-10, and energized the crowd, Florida faced a fourth-and-6 from its 39 when Omarius Hines took the snap out of a punt formation and ran 36 yards to the Tennessee 25. The play quieted the crowd and changed the momentum.

“When the momentum shifts, you have to get it back somehow,” Meyer said. “With experienced offensive players, you don’t have to do that sort of stuff. When you have inexperienced players, you have to create a play.”

The Gators’ defense gave up only 29 yards rushing, and Florida intercepted two passes, giving it 10 in three games.

A game at No. 1 Alabama awaits on Oct. 2. Three games into the post-Tebow era, Florida does not appear ready to challenge the powerful Crimson Tide.

“Are we good enough to win at Neyland Stadium?” Meyer said. “That’s all I’m worried about.”

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