For No. 14 Tennessee, the second half on Saturday ranged somewhere between catharsis and exorcism.
Breaking an unfathomable 11-year losing streak to Southeastern Conference East rival Florida, the Volunteers scored 38 straight points to erase a 21-0 second-quarter deficit and post a 38-28 verdict over the No. 19 Gators.
Moments after time expired, Tennessee coach Butch Jones fired his right fist in the air twice as he crossed the field to shake hands with Gators coach Jim McElwain. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs circled the stands’ perimeter to slap fives with fans who were probably booing the Vols off the field at halftime as they faced a 21-3 deficit.
“We were hurting ourselves at the beginning of the game,” Dobbs said after throwing for four touchdowns — all in the second half. “We turned it around in the second half.”
Did Tennessee ever turn it around, sparked by Dobbs, criticized by some for his inconsistency as a passer. Haunted by five drops and a brutal interception in the first half, Dobbs started the second half with a second interception after being hit on a throw near the end zone, and then took the game over.
Dobbs started the comeback by hitting running back Jalen Hurd with a 23-yard scoring strike at the 7:29 mark of the third quarter, slicing Florida’s lead to 21-10. Dobbs then lofted a 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ethan Wolf with 59 seconds remaining in the quarter.
The Vols (4-0, 1-0) took the lead for the first time when Dobbs connected with Jauan Jennings on a 67-yard scoring play down the right sideline with 12:45 left in the game. Jennings juggled the ball and made the catch while yards behind any defender, sending the sellout crowd of 102,455 into delirium.
After a Todd Kelly interception at the Gators’ 42, Dobbs struck again three plays later. Josh Malone caught a slant pass and raced through the Florida defense for a 42-yard touchdown with 11:18 left, making it 31-21.
Dobbs capped the Tennessee scoring on a 5-yard run with 8:27 remaining, leaving no doubt that it would snap a skid that started in 2005 — Urban Meyer’s first season in Gainesville.
“Just one play at a time,” coach Butch Jones said when asked how the Vols made such a dramatic turnaround. “We didn’t play our best football in the first half; it was all on us. We came out and played a great second half.”
Meanwhile, Florida (3-1, 1-1) didn’t even pick up a first down in the second half until midway through the fourth quarter, when it pieced together an 86-yard touchdown drive that ended with Austin Appleby’s 10-yard pass to Freddie Swain with 4:17 left.
Appleby, a transfer from Purdue who got the call because of an injury to starter Luke Del Rio, carved up the Tennessee defense in the first half. His 3-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Goolsby initiated scoring just 85 seconds into the day.
Appleby made it 14-0 on a 10-yard scoring strike to Jordan Cronkrite with 14:10 left in the first half, and running back Josh Scarlett upped the margin to 21 on a 1-yard plunge at the 5:12 mark.
But Appleby, who finished 23 of 39 for 296 yards, was shut down in the second half as the Vols began pressuring him, forcing him into quick throws.
“We were stressing last night in the hotel that we couldn’t wait for them to give it to us,” Tennessee defensive tackle Danny O’Brien said. “We have to take it. Once we got our foot on the gas pedal, there was no turning back.”
Dobbs finished 16 of 32 for 319 yards in the air and rushed for 80 yards on 17 carries. Hurd compiled 95 yards on 26 attempts, while Jennings bagged 111 yards on only three catches.
The Vols’ reward for finally beating Florida? Trips to Georgia and Texas A&M the next two weeks, followed by a visit from No. 1 Alabama.
“It’s not the main goal,” running back Alvin Kamara said, “but it’s a step in the right direction.”
NOTES: This is the first time the teams met as unbeaten, ranked squads since 2012. … Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin left in the first quarter with a shoulder injury that was supposed to sideline him for the game’s remainder, but returned in the third quarter. … Florida’s defense entered the game allowing opponents to convert just 19 percent of their third down chances. The Vols cashed in on 7 of 17 third downs.